Lord Christopher Geidt resigned as ethics adviser to Boris Johnson after the prime minister vowed to maintain tariffs on a “crucial industry” — which officials say was steel — that risked breaching World Trade Organization rules, according to letters published on Thursday.
Geidt wrote to the prime minister that he had been put in an “impossible and odious position” by an unspecified request to approve a violation of the ministerial code.
“The idea that a prime minister might to any degree be in the business of deliberately breaching his own code is an affront,” he wrote, adding that he had already been on the brink of resignation because Johnson’s behaviour over “partygate” breaches of Covid-19 restrictions.
Johnson replied to Geidt saying the letter had come as a “surprise” given Gedit had as recently as Monday indicated that he would stay until the end of the year. He said the adviser had complained about being asked for advice over future decisions related to Britain’s new Trade Remedies Authority.
“My intention was to seek your advice on the national interest in protecting a crucial industry, which is protected in other European countries and would suffer material harm if we do not continue to apply such tariffs,” the prime minister wrote. “It would be in line with our domestic law but might be seen to conflict with our obligations under the WTO.”
Johnson said he had sought Geidt’s advice to ensure the government was acting properly. Government officials have told the Financial Times the letter was referring to the UK steel industry.
Last year the government said it would ignore advice from officials at the TRA to drop tariffs on imports of some types of steel after the industry warned that doing so would cost thousands of British jobs. The policy of keeping the tariffs in place has been supported by some opposition parties.
Geidt said he had been disappointed by Johnson’s failure to give a “fuller” account of criticism in the official Sue Gray report into partygate — the parties that occurred in Whitehall during Covid lockdowns.
“Inconsistencies and deficiencies notwithstanding, I believed that it was possible to continue credibly as independent adviser, albeit by a very small margin,” he wrote.
But the former adviser — once private secretary to the Queen — said the final straw came with this week’s request to approve a potential violation of the ministerial code.
He wrote: “A deliberate breach, or even an intention to do so, would be to suspend the provisions of the code to suit a political end.”
Downing Street figure said colleagues were sceptical about Geidt’s excuse for quitting: “I think this is a contrived protest for resignation, it seems like a disingenuous reason, I’m presuming he has resigned over something else.”
Geidt is the second ethics adviser to quit under Johnson’s premiership and did so a day after expressing his “frustration” over the partygate affair in which gatherings in Downing Street broke Covid-19 restrictions.
His departure comes a week after Johnson survived a confidence vote among Tory MPs by 211 votes to 148.
Geidt’s predecessor, Sir Alex Allan, quit in November 2020 after Johnson failed to act after he published a critical report on alleged bullying by Priti Patel, home secretary.
Geidt’s first task was to investigate the financing of Johnson’s refurbishment of his Number 10 flat. He was criticised for not being thorough enough in probing the prime minister’s claim that he was unaware that financing was coming from a Tory donor.
Questioned by the Commons public administration committee on Tuesday, Geidt acknowledged: “How can I defeat the impression that it’s a cosy, insufficiently independent relationship? It’s very hard. But I’m trying my best to work with what I’ve got.”
Geidt had said it was “reasonable” to suggest Johnson may have breached the ministerial code when he was fined during the partygate scandal.
He told MPs the “ordinary man or woman” might have concluded Johnson had breached the code, given he had received a fixed-penalty notice. The code requires ministers to comply with the law.