Lord Geidt’s resignation is a fresh reminder of the government’s restrictive approach to scrutiny of its actions

After barely a year in post, Lord (Christopher) Geidt resigned yesterday as the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. As Peter Riddell demonstrates below, his resignation is a further example of the battles of constitutional watchdogs to remain independent of the executive, and reflects the increasing presidentialism of the current administration, dismissing scrutiny not only by regulators but also by parliament, the courts and the media.

The immediate and pressing question raised by Lord (Christopher) Geidt’s resignation is whether the role of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is doable at present. This is only partly a matter of rules but more one of political culture and attitudes. That has been implicitly acknowledged in the response of a Downing Street spokesman that there will not be an immediate replacement and that the Prime Minister is ‘carefully considering’ the future of the role.

As often with resignations, the background and the run-up to the decision to go matter as much as the specific reason for departure. Lord Geidt’s frustrations have been increasingly clear in his correspondence with Boris Johnson, in his annual report last month (as I discussed on this blog last week) and in his evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) on 7 June. Johnson and his team failed to supply relevant information over the decoration of the Downing Street flat when initially sought and the PM did not take account of his obligations under the Ministerial Code over the ‘partygate’ allegations, for which he received a fixed penalty notice. Lord Geidt felt that Johnson’s eventual comments still did not address criticisms by Sue Gray about his adherence to the Nolan principles of public life.

Nonetheless, despite ‘inconsistencies and deficiencies’, Lord Geidt said in his resignation letter that he ‘believed it was possible to continue credibly as Independent Adviser, albeit by a very small margin’. He apparently told Boris Johnson on Monday that he would be content to serve until the end of the year. This followed the government’s concession last month that the Adviser could initiate his own investigations but only after having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent, and with greater transparency over a refusal. Lord Geidt has described this as a ‘low level of ambition’ and his discomfort over the ambiguities of his relationship with the Prime Minister was evident in some robust questioning by PACAC. He was clearly seen by the MPs as not truly independent, not least when he said he was one of the PM’s assets, and, in practice, inhibited from advising a Prime Minister on his own conduct and obligations under the Code.

With this uneasy background, and his admission to PACAC that he had considered resignation, what tilted the balance is a still partly mysterious request by the government ‘to consider measures which risk a deliberate and purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code. This request has placed me in an impossible and odious position. My informal response on Monday was that you and any other minister should justify openly your position vis-à-vis the Code in such circumstances. However, the idea that a Prime Minister might to any degree be in the business of deliberately breaching his own Code is an affront. A deliberate breach, or even an intention to do so, would be to suspend the provisions of the Code to suit a political end. This would make a mockery not only of respect for the Code but licence the suspension of its provisions in governing the conduct of Her Majesty’s ministers. I can have no part of this’. These are very strong words from someone who has never sought to rock the boat but, like Alex Allan, his predecessor as Independent Adviser, has a lifetime record of public service, committed to working with those in power.

In his response, Johnson claimed to be puzzled over the resignation. He said the request for advice on potential future decisions related to the Trade Remedies Authority, where a tariff decision might be seen to conflict with UK obligations to the World Trade Organisation. This is all very odd since the Independent Adviser has not previously been consulted on possible breaches of international law. The PM said he ‘was looking to ensure that we acted properly with due regard to the Ministerial Code’. There is more to come out about this story.

Yet, in many ways, the specific cause of the resignation is less important than the inherent tensions in the position of the Independent Adviser which have resulted in two resignations in less than two years. This is only part a matter of formal rules and the half acceptance of the proposals for greater independence, desirable though they are, made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. (CSPL). The government’s proposals were described as ‘highly unsatisfactory’ by Lord (Jonathan) Evans of Weardale, its chair. The key lies in the continuing areas of Prime Ministerial discretion, notably in decisions about whether the Code has been broken and what sanctions should be applied. This was shown when Boris Johnson brushed aside Alex Allan’s criticisms of Priti Patel over alleged bullying of civil servants, which led to Allan’s resignation. No one disputes that a Prime Minister should decide who is in their administration, but ministers should be seen to conform to the Ministerial Code, or be held accountable and responsible. But, as Lord Geidt recognised in his annual report, this creates dangers of a circular process when the Prime Minister himself is involved, as Boris Johnson has frequently been.

So the position of Independent Adviser is simultaneously both vital in overseeing the Ministerial Code and often unworkable in practice, especially when you have a Prime Minister with such a cavalier attitude to standards issues. No wonder that Downing Street officials have been saying there will not be an immediate replacement for Lord Geidt and that the Adviser’s role will be reviewed. Who would take on the post without both further changes in the rules and assurances over future conduct which would strain political and public credibility? Moreover, there is no statutory requirement to have an Independent Adviser: another reason for enacting Lord (David) Anderson’s private member’s bill in the House of Lords taking forward the CSPL’s proposals for putting the main constitutional watchdogs on a statutory basis. The government has already rejected statutory backing and open competition for the appointment of the Independent Adviser.

This episode is a further example of the battles of constitutional watchdogs to remain independent of the executive. This is also seen in the latest complaint by John Pullinger, chair of the Electoral Commission, in an interview with Prospect magazine about the threat to its independence from provisions in the recent Elections Act.

That, in turn, reflects the increasing presidentialism of the current administration, dismissing scrutiny not only by regulators but also by parliament, the courts and the media. Pluralism is on the retreat.

The Unit is holding a session on constitutional standards at our annual conference on 22 June, at which Peter Riddell and CSPL member Jeremy Wright will be panellists. Tickets are free and can be secured via the conference page on the Unit’s website.

About the author

Sir Peter Riddell is an Honorary Professor at the Constitution Unit, UCL. He is a former Commissioner for Public Appointments and previously Director of the Institute for Government.