Boris Johnson has triggered horror in Westminster with plans to abolish the post of Downing Street ethics adviser, after Christopher Geidt quit in protest at being asked to endorse deliberate rule-breaking by the prime minister.
Lord Geidt – the second adviser to resign in less than two years during Mr Johnson’s premiership – said he was put in an “impossible and odious” position when asked to advise on a plan to maintain tariffs on Chinese steel in a way which would breach UK obligations under the World Trade Organisation.
But his predecessor in the role, Sir Alex Allan, said after speaking with Lord Geidt that it was clear the steel issue was “the final straw” after a series of run-ins with the PM over lockdown-breaching parties and the lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.
Meanwhile, the Committee on Standards in Public Life issued a stern warning to the PM not to go ahead with plans to replace the high-profile adviser with an anonymous committee of officials to oversee the ministerial code of conduct.
Scrapping the adviser’s post – created by Tony Blair in 2006 in response to a recommendation from the sleaze watchdog – would be “a backwards step” which would “risk further damage to public perceptions of standards”, said CSPL chair Lord Evans.
In a letter to Lord Geidt, Mr Johnson suggested that the “increasingly public role” of the ethics adviser would be a “burden” on anyone taking up the job. And in the Commons, Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis suggested that the adviser was “under constant political pressure to attack the prime minister” or be accused of being “a lackey or a patsy”.
The PM’s official spokesperson confirmed that Mr Johnson plans to “take time” to consider whether to appoint a replacement for the former private secretary to the Queen, or to find a different way of fulfilling the function of scrutinising ministerial behaviour.
Options are understood to include giving the job of conducting investigations into alleged misbehaviour by ministers to a unit of civil servants within the Cabinet Office.
But Tory MP Richard Graham – who is not usually among Mr Johnson’s public critics – said that any notion of axing the adviser’s post should be “dropped fairly fast”.
“He should go out and find someone credible to replace him as soon as possible,” Mr Graham told The Independent. “It would be a mistake to abolish the post.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Johnson had “debased standards and rigged the rules for far too long”, while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Boris Johnson has no ethics, so not surprising he wants to scrap his ethics adviser.”
Ms Rayner said: “The prime minister’s decision to rig the rules and remove all scrutiny rather than backing Labour’s plan to clean up politics shows you how serious he is about tackling the sleaze that is engulfing his administration. He’s unfit for office. Conservative MPs should do the decent thing and show him the door.”
The prime minister was blindsided by Lord Geidt’s surprise resignation on Wednesday, which came just two days after the pair had discussed him staying in post to the end of the year, and a day after he fielded questions from a parliamentary committee on why he had not quit over Partygate.
In his letter, the adviser said that approving the PM’s steel plan would “make a mockery” of the code of conduct, and concluded: “I can have no part in this.”
He revealed that he had decided only “by a very small margin” not to quit earlier over Mr Johnson’s refusal to let him investigate potential breaches in the code relating to parties at No 10.
“The idea that a prime minister might to any degree be in the business of deliberately breaching his own code is an affront,” wrote Lord Geidt.
“A deliberate breach, or even an intention to do so, would be to suspend the provisions of the code to suit a political end.”
Sir Alex, who walked out in 2020 after Mr Johnson overruled his finding that Priti Patel had bullied Home Office staff, said he had told his successor he was right to stand up for his principles, but believed that the decision was the result of a “combination of issues”.
“I think this was the final straw coming on top of, for example, his concerns about the fact the prime minister hadn’t said anything about the ministerial code in all of his explanations of the Partygate saga,” he told BBC Newscast.
Lord Evans, a former head of MI5, said that Downing Street may be concerned that it will be difficult to find someone to fill the sensitive post of adviser to Mr Johnson following two high-profile resignations.
But he warned: “Removing this independent voice on standards issues at the heart of government would risk further damage to public perceptions of standards.
“At a time of heightened concern about standards in public life, any change to the oversight of ministerial behaviour must be stronger, not weaker, than we have now.”
He said it was vital for a new adviser with “sufficient independence and integrity” to be put in place before any reforms are introduced, adding: “Anything less would be a backward step.”
It was not immediately clear why Mr Johnson requested Lord Geidt’s advice over whether he should overrule the advice of the independent Trade Remedies Authority over restrictions on steel imports.
There is cross-party support for the UK steel industry, which regards the system of quotas and tariffs – introduced in response to Donald Trump’s trade war with China – as essential to protect homegrown jobs and investment.
But there is no evidence of Lord Geidt being consulted over other policy proposals which risked breaching international law, such as the bill to override the Northern Ireland Protocol, or of Sir Alex being consulted on the earlier Internal Markets Bill.
Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said that parliament was within its rights to reject recommendations from the TRA, set up after Brexit to protect UK companies from unfair trading practices.
“I think everyone in this country wants to make sure that we have a competitive steel industry, which is not subject to dumping from other countries,” said Mr Rees-Mogg. “The prime minister is backing British industry, and he’s right to be doing so.”
UK Steel director general Gareth Stace said that a failure to renew controls when they expire at the end of this month could do as much as £150m a year damage to the domestic industry.
“It is essential that the UK’s steel safeguard is maintained in its entirety,” said Mr Stace. “Failure to do so would risk surges in steel imports resulting in significant damage to UK producers, placing jobs, production, and investment at risk.”
Meanwhile, the FDA union for senior civil servants called for a fully independent investigatory process to deal with complaints against ministers, to ensure staff can be confident that allegations of misconduct, bullying or sexual harassment are properly dealt with.
General secretary Dave Penman said: “If the prime minister does not intend to replace Lord Geidt, then he must immediately put in place measures that ensure a civil servant can, with confidence, raise a complaint about ministerial misconduct.
“Ministers cannot be exempt from the standards that apply to civil servants – and any modern workplace – when it comes to their conduct. This means there must, at all times, be an appropriate enforcement mechanism to regulate their behaviour.”