Standards watchdog urges Boris Johnson to appoint new ethics adviser

The chair of the committee on standards in public life has urged Boris Johnson to appoint a new ethics adviser immediately or risk undermining public confidence in the rules.

Christopher Geidt resigned as the prime minister’s ethics adviser earlier this month, saying he had been put in an “impossible and odious” position by being asked to rubber stamp a plan to maintain steel tariffs.

Lord Geidt had previously conceded at a hearing with MPs that it was “reasonable” to ask whether Johnson may have broken the ministerial code by being fined for breaching Covid rules.

After Geidt’s resignation, Downing Street made clear it would not immediately replace him and was instead reviewing the system for overseeing the ministerial code.

In a letter to Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, Jonathan Evans, whose remit is to oversee standards in public life, said he believed that was unsatisfactory.

“It is imperative that an independent adviser on ministers’ interests is appointed, even if temporarily, whilst proposals for the role are developed,” he said.

Lord Evans pointed to a blogpost his committee published on 16 June, which made the point even before Geidt’s resignation that the regime for enforcing the ministerial code needed strengthening.

“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,” it said.

Evans pointedly copied his letter to Rayner to a string of senior government figures, including the prime minister, the levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, and the paymaster general, Michael Ellis, who often gets sent out to answer questions in parliament about Johnson’s probity.

Rayner had written to Evans after reports that the prime minister tried to secure jobs for his now wife, Carrie Johnson, at the Foreign Office when he was foreign secretary, and later for an environmental charity.

The cabinet secretary, Simon Case – also replying to a letter from Rayner – admitted last week that he had discussed “opportunities” for Carrie Johnson with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Earthshot prize but denied he had recommended her for a job.

“In autumn 2020 a former member of the No 10 team asked about opportunities for Mrs Johnson with environmental charities. I was happy to have an informal conversation with someone involved with the Earthshot prize about what roles were available, as I would have done for anyone with relevant experience who was keen to get involved with charity work,” he said.

Case is due to appear before MPs on the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, alongside Darren Tierney, the director general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office.

Johnson has repeatedly faced questions about his commitment to maintaining standards in public life. Geidt’s resignation followed the departure of his predecessor, Alex Allan, who quit after Johnson chose to disregard his finding that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had bullied officials, albeit inadvertently.

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