Boris Johnson has sparked outrage in Westminster with his plans to cut the post of Downing Street ethics adviser, after Christopher Geidt resigned in protest at being asked to approve a deliberate breach of the rules by the Prime Minister.
Lord Geidt, the second adviser to quit in less than two years under Mr Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister, said he had been put in an impossible and abhorrent position when asked to give his opinion on a plan to maintain tariffs on Chinese steel in a way that would violate the UK’s obligations to the world. Trade Organization (WTO).
But his predecessor in the role, Sir Alex Allan, said after speaking with Lord Geidt it was clear the steel issue was the final straw after a series of run-ins with the Prime Minister over parties breaking the lockdown and lavishly refurbishing his Downing Street apartment.
Meanwhile, the Committee for Standards in Public Life (CSPL) has issued a stern warning to the Prime Minister not to go ahead with plans to replace the top adviser with an anonymous committee of civil servants to oversee the departmental code of conduct.
Removing the adviser post created by Tony Blair in 2006 in response to a recommendation from the sleazy watchdog would be a step backwards that could further damage public perception of the standards, said CSPL chairman Lord Evans.
In a letter to Lord Geidt, Mr Johnson suggested the increasingly public role of the ethics counselor would be a burden on anyone taking the job. And in the Commons, Cabinet Secretary Michael Ellis hinted the adviser was under constant political pressure to attack the Prime Minister or be accused of being a lackey or a patsy.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman has confirmed that Mr Johnson plans to take time to consider whether to appoint a replacement for the Queen’s former private secretary or find another way to fulfill the scrutiny function of the ministerial behavior.
The options are said to include giving the task of carrying out investigations into allegations of misconduct 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 any idea of scrapping the adviser post should be dropped fairly quickly.
He should go out and find someone credible to replace him as soon as possible, Mr Graham said. The Independent. It would be a mistake to delete the post.
Deputy Labor leader Angela Rayner said Mr Johnson had lowered standards and rigged the rules for too long, while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: Boris Johnson has no ethics, it is therefore not surprising that he wants to remove his ethics counsellor.
Ms Rayner said: The Prime Minister’s decision to rig the rules and remove all scrutiny rather than back Labor’s plan to clean up politics shows you how serious he is about tackling the squalor that is engulfing his administration. He is unfit for the position. Conservative MPs should do the right 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 discussed keeping him in the job until the end of the year, and a day after responding to questions from a parliamentary committee about why he hadn’t quit Partygate.
In his letter, the adviser said that endorsing the Prime Minister’s steel plan would be a travesty of the code of conduct, and concluded: I cannot participate in this.
He revealed he had only decided by a very narrow margin not to quit sooner due to Mr Johnson’s refusal to let him investigate possible party code breaches at No 10.
The idea that a prime minister could, to any degree, be deliberately breaking his own code is an affront, Lord Geidt wrote.
A deliberate violation, or even an intention to do so, would be to suspend the provisions of the code to serve a political end.
Sir Alex, who quit in 2020 after Mr Johnson overruled his finding that Priti Patel bullied Home Office staff, said he told his successor he was right to defend his principles, but thought the decision was the result of a combination of issues.
I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, for example, his concerns that the Prime Minister had said nothing about the ministerial code in all his explanations of the Partygate saga, a- he told BBC Newscast.
Lord Evans, a former head of MI5, said Downing Street may fear it will be difficult to find someone to fill Mr Johnson’s sensitive position as adviser after two high-profile resignations.
But he warned: Removing that independent voice on standards issues at the heart of government would risk further damaging public perception of standards.
At a time when the standards of public life are of growing concern, any change to oversight of ministerial behavior must be stronger, not weaker, than what we have now.
He said it was vital that a new adviser with sufficient independence and integrity was put in place before any reforms were introduced, adding: Anything less would be a step backwards.
It was not immediately clear why Mr Johnson sought the advice of Lord Geidts on whether he should overrule the Independent Trade Remedies Authority’s advice on restrictions on steel imports.
There is cross-party support for Britain’s steel industry, which sees the quota and tariff system introduced in response to Donald Trump’s trade war with China as key to protecting local jobs and investment.
But there is no evidence that Lord Geidt was consulted on other policy proposals that risked breaching international law, such as the bill to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol, or that Sir Alex was consulted on the previous Internal Markets Bill.
Cabinet Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said Parliament was within its rights to reject the recommendations of the TRA, set up after Brexit to protect UK businesses 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, Mr Rees-Mogg said. The Prime Minister supports British industry, and he is right to do so.
UK Steel chief executive Gareth Stace has said failure to renew controls when they expire at the end of this month could cause up to £150million a year in damages to domestic industry.
It is essential that the UK’s steel safeguard is upheld in full, Mr Stace said. Failure to do so would risk increasing steel imports, causing significant damage to UK producers, jeopardizing jobs, production and investment.
Meanwhile, the Union of Senior FDA Officials has called for a fully independent investigative process to address complaints against ministers, to ensure staff can be confident that allegations of misconduct, intimidation or of sexual harassment are properly dealt with.
General Secretary Dave Penman said: If the Prime Minister has no intention of replacing Lord Geidt, he must immediately put in place measures to ensure that a civil servant can, in confidence, bring a complaint of ministerial misconduct.
Ministers cannot be exempted from the standards that apply to public servants and any modern workplace with respect to their conduct. This means that there must be, at all times, an appropriate enforcement mechanism to regulate their behavior.
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