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LONDON — Being Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser is a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Or at least they did until now.
Christopher Geidt dramatically quit as Johnson’s independent adviser this week, relinquishing his role as the man tasked with policing ministers’ conduct. And Downing Street won’t yet commit to replacing him.
While he’s faced weeks of scrutiny over his stance on Johnson’s Partygate coronavirus rule-breaking – including brutal media coverage of a parliamentary grilling on the affair — the last straw appears to have been more prosaic: a technical row over protective steel tariffs.
Westminster-watchers were caught off guard by that reasoning — and some see a decent man who has been looking for a way out for months as Johnson’s government reels from one storm to another.
One former head of a government department said Geidt’s problem was that “he’s a man of honor, with few comms skills, up against someone utterly cunning and ruthless.”
The mystery only serves to illustrate just how consistently Johnson has sought to disregard normal Westminster rules and how, despite months of scandal, he continues to do so.
When the exit came, Geidt didn’t exactly hold back. In a letter released Thursday, the outgoing watchdog said Johnson had forced him into an “impossible and odious” position by asking him to consider measures which he said risked a “deliberate” breach of the ministerial code. In British political speak, that’s pretty damning.
Downing Street refused to confirm exactly what those “measures” were when pressed by reporters, but Johnson’s own reply to Geidt specifies that they “might be seen to conflict with obligations” under the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In his own letter, Johnson specifically referenced the U.K.’s independent Trade Remedies Authority, a body designed to weigh in on trade disputes.
But those references have trade wonks scratching their heads, and are prompting wider questions about why exactly Geidt pulled the trigger.
The TRA row is certainly controversial. The government is considering extending a series of tariffs meant to protect domestic steel producers from a flood of Chinese imports — but critics say it’s flirting with a breach of international law.
The body, set up to investigate claims of unfair trade practices, previously advised ministers to scrap some of those safeguards. Concerns have been expressed by other countries that keeping the measures in place would breach WTO rules.
A spokesman for the prime minister suggested the matter was referred to Geidt because breaching an international treaty could be considered a violation of the ministerial code, which the ethics adviser oversees.
And yet it’s not immediately clear that extending the steel protections would necessarily break WTO rules. “In these cases the WTO panel rules on legality so until a ruling the actions are not considered illegal or otherwise,” said one former U.K. trade official.
It’s equally unclear why the prime minister ended up asking Geidt for his advice at this juncture, having not done so when the tariffs initially came up for review and when Johnson’s administration has already been content to entertain actions — particularly on the Brexit front — that challenge the international order.
Speaking Thursday, the PM’s spokesman insisted it was “not unusual in and of itself” for the independent adviser to be consulted on such a matter.
Yet two former Cabinet Office officials suggested a conflict over trade rules was not the “killer moment” and instead marked a convenient point for Geidt to throw in the towel.
Geidt took on the job after engaging in the relatively genteel pursuits of breeding Hebridean sheep and serving as private secretary to the queen. He was appointed after his predecessor, Alex Allan, quit in protest when Johnson declined to accept his finding that Home Secretary Priti Patel had bullied staff.
He’s since faced a number of awkward challenges. His first big job was to investigate the prime minister over funding arrangements for a refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. He found the PM had acted “unwisely” — but cleared him of being deliberately misleading.
It later emerged that Johnson had withheld messages relevant to that investigation, but Geidt said his boss had not broken the ministerial code. Instead, he described the PM’s behavior as “plainly unsatisfactory.”
Geidt’s role came under intense Westminster scrutiny amid Partygate, the government-wide scandal over parties involving officials and ministers at the height of the U.K.’s COVID-19 lockdowns.
In the wake of a highly-critical report by a senior civil servant into the scandal, Geidt — previously reserved — upped his criticism of Johnson, saying there was now a “legitimate question” over whether the prime minister had broken the ministerial code when he was fined by police for attending a lockdown gathering.
Appearing in front of a committee of MPs Tuesday, Geidt admitted “frustration” at Johnson’s response to the Partygate affair — but he refused to be drawn on whether his own powers should be strengthened as a result. MPs, and Westminster’s parliamentary sketch-writers, were left exasperated.
Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, said Geidt was facing “a particularly difficult issue in the context of the ministerial code, his role within it, and the government’s approach to the rule of law.”
“The mystery is what was it about this particular case, but I think from Geidt’s point of view he was ready to walk and they gave him the bullet,” Haddon said.
One ex-Cabinet Office official pointed to a wider breakdown in relations at the heart of government. They said: “If there had been trust, it seems like the sort of issue that could be worked through. But if he thought the PM was a bad faith actor then he had to go.”
Westminster wags greeted news of Geidt’s resignation with jokes about who might possibly be willing to take on the job — Star Wars baddie Darth Vader, perhaps, or his own father.
But No. 10 responded by saying they in fact may not replace him at all. Instead, Johnson’s spokesman said, the government is “carefully considering” how the functions of the watchdog are best carried out.
Some think replacing Geidt may simply be a waste of time under a prime minister who has put a premium on doing things his own way.
“He doesn’t listen, because everything has worked together in his own mind to demonstrate that he’s that he’s infallible,” said one former ministerial colleague.