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LONDON — Being Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser is a tough job, but someone has to do it. Or at least they have so far.
Christopher Geidt radically left his post as an independent adviser to Johnson this week, abandoning his role as the man in charge of controlling the conduct of ministers. And Downing Street is not yet committed to replacing him.
While he has faced weeks of scrutiny over his stance on Johnson’s breach of Partygate coronavirus rules – including heavy-handed media coverage of a parliamentary grill over the matter – the last straw appears to have been more prosaic: a technical dispute over protective steel tariffs.
Westminster watchers have been caught off guard by that reasoning – and some see a decent man who has been searching for a way out for months as Johnson’s government totters from storm to storm.
A former head of a government department said Geidt’s problem was that “he is a man of honour, with little communication skills, up against someone completely cunning and ruthless.”
The mystery only serves to illustrate how Johnson consistently sought to ignore normal Westminster rules and how, despite months of scandal, he continues to do so.
When the exit came, Geidt didn’t really hold back. In a letter released Thursday, the outgoing watchdog said Johnson had forced him into an “impossible and abhorrent” position by asking him to consider actions he said risked a “deliberate” violation of the departmental code. In British political parlance, this is quite damning.
Downing Street declined to confirm exactly what those “measures” were when pressed by reporters, but Johnson’s own response to Geidt clarifies that they “could be considered to conflict with obligations” of the World Trade Organization ( WTO).
In his own letter, Johnson specifically referred to the UK’s independent Trade Remedies Authority, a body designed to weigh in on trade disputes.
But these references have trade buffs scratching their heads and prompting broader questions about exactly why Geidt pulled the trigger.
The TRA line is certainly controversial. The government is considering extending a series of tariffs intended to protect domestic steel producers from an influx of Chinese imports – but critics say it flirts with a breach of international law.
The body, set up to investigate allegations of unfair trading practices, had previously advised ministers to scrap some of those safeguards. Other countries have expressed concerns that keeping the measures in place would violate WTO rules.
A spokesman for the prime minister suggested the case was referred to Geidt because breaching an international treaty could be considered a breach of the ministerial code, which the ethics counselor oversees.
And yet, it is not immediately clear that extending steel protections would necessarily violate WTO rules. “In these cases the WTO panel rules on legality, so until a ruling is made the actions are not considered illegal or otherwise,” said a former UK trade official.
It is also unclear why the Prime Minister ended up seeking Geidt’s advice at this stage, having failed to do so when the tariffs were initially considered and when Johnson’s administration had already been content to undertake actions – especially on the Brexit front – that challenge the international order.
Speaking on Thursday, the PM’s spokesman insisted it was “not unusual in itself” for the independent adviser to be consulted on such a matter.
Yet two former Cabinet Office officials suggested a dispute over trading rules was not the “killing moment” and instead marked a convenient point for Geidt to throw in the towel.
Geidt accepted the post after engaging in the relatively genteel business of Hebridean sheep-farming and serving as the Queen’s private secretary. He was appointed after his predecessor, Alex Allan, resigned in protest when Johnson refused to accept his conclusion that Home Secretary Priti Patel had bullied staff.
He has since faced a number of troublesome challenges. His first big job was to investigate the Prime Minister over how the Downing Street apartment was being funded. He concluded the Prime Minister acted ‘recklessly’ – but cleared him of deliberately misleading.
It later emerged that Johnson hid messages relevant to that investigation, but Geidt said his boss did not violate departmental code. Instead, he described the Prime Minister’s behavior as “grossly unsatisfactory”.
Geidt’s role has come under intense scrutiny from Westminster amid Partygate, the government-wide scandal over parties involving government officials and ministers at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns in UK.
Following a highly critical report by senior civil servant Sue Gray into the scandal, Geidt – previously reserved – stepped up his criticism of Johnson, saying there was now a “legitimate question” whether the Prime Minister had broke cabinet code when he was fined by police for attending a lockdown rally.
Appearing before a committee of MPs on Tuesday, Geidt admitted his “frustration” with Johnson’s response to the Partygate affair – but he refused to be fired on whether his own powers should be enhanced as a result. MPs and parliamentary sketch writers at Westminster were exasperated.
Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, said Geidt faced “a particularly difficult problem in the context of the ministerial code, his role within it, and the government’s approach. government vis-à-vis the rule of law”.
“The mystery is what about that particular case, but I think from Geidt’s perspective he was ready to walk and they gave him the ball,” Haddon said.
A former Cabinet official pointed to a wider breakdown in relations in government. They said, “If there had been trust, that seems like the kind of problem that could be solved. But if he thought the prime minister was a bad faith actor, he had to go.
The Westminster wags greeted the news of Geidt’s resignation with jokes about who could possibly take the job – Star Wars villain Darth Vader, perhaps, or his own father.
But the No.10 responded by saying they might not replace him at all. Instead, Johnson’s spokesman said, the government is “carefully considering” how best to perform watchdog duties.
Some think replacing Geidt might just be a waste of time under a prime minister who has emphasized doing things his way.
“He does not listen, because everything has conspired in his head to show that he is infallible,” said a former ministerial colleague.