When Lord Geidt agreed to become the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests (the watchdog on the Ministerial Code) he accepted the government’s decision not to give the role greater powers. He did so, he argued, because he believed rules only went so far and that ‘good behaviour is a very difficult thing to legislate for’. But Geidt only accepted the appointment because he thought he could restore trust in the role and build up trust with the prime minister, both of which are essential to the job effectively. Today, both look in seriously short supply.
The revelation that Lord Geidt’s review into the funding of refurbishments to the prime minister’s flat did not have access to the same evidence as the Electoral Commission – in particular whatsapp messages from the prime minister to the Tory donor Lord Brownlow – suggests that the compromise terms of his appointment have failed.
On his appointment Geidt also said that he would review the role and its terms of reference, particularly if it appeared to be failing to do the job required – and there can be little doubt that such a review is now urgently needed. So while Geidt could trigger the ‘nuclear option’ of resigning, with all the political consequences that would bring, he should instead stay in the post in return for an urgent review of the role, proper independence in its position and the ability to demand evidence. If his calls go unheeded, then he should go.
When Geidt first took on the role, several months after the previous adviser, Sir Alex Allan, resigned in the wake of the Priti Patel bullying inquiry, there was debate about whether it needed a different remit or new powers. A change was agreed, between Geidt and the prime minister, that in theory gave Geidt greater ability to proactively suggest inquiries to the prime minister, rather than waiting to be called. Geidt thought this was a ‘substantive’ change and that it ‘should be put to work before seeing if they need to be developed further.’
Since he took on the role, and even before this latest scandal, several organisations including the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Institute for Government, have argued that the role must change. The Institute for Government has argued that the independent adviser needs statutory backing to ensure the role’s continued existence and authority, that the adviser needs to be able to initiate their own inquiries, and that they needed independent staffing to be able to investigate properly. The comparison with Electoral Commission, which has the legal backing to threaten prosecution if evidence is not produced, suggests a stark mismatch.
When Geidt secured his “substantive change”, he said that if it “becomes apparent that that does not deliver for the purposes of public confidence… I do have the licence to bring forward advice to the prime minister to suggest a change to those terms of reference’. There can be no doubt that this has now become apparent.
The independent advisor’s role is what it says it is: to provide advice to the prime minister. The adviser is supported by the same team – Propriety and Ethics – who are currently helping the cabinet secretary investigate Christmas parties in No10 last year.
Those defending the role in its current form, including Geidt when he took it on, argue that this status is right one if the adviser is to have access to the prime minister and his authority in conducting reviews. But this depends hugely on trust. Geidt himself said that ‘much will depend on the extent to which a relationship of trust can be built with the office of prime minister’.
But the issue of trust goes beyond Geidt’s view; public opinion matters as well. Geidt said he saw public confidence ‘at the heart of all of our interests’ and that this would be the biggest test of whether the role was working. Even if Geidt feels that there is some excuse why he did not get the same information as the Electoral Commission, or that it would not have changed his judgement, the question is whether the public believe the reason why a seemingly significant piece of evidence was not given to the adviser. The perception of a failed system is now hugely important to what happens next, and there is no doubt that public confidence in the system has been damaged.
When he first took on the job, Geidt called the possibility of resigning a ‘last resort’ which would ‘sends a critical signal into the public domain’. But if Geidt finds or feels that he has been misled and that the prime minister knew more about the handling of the loan than Geidt was told, then he may conclude that is impossible to remain in the post. He may also feel that his reputation is damaged and the problems are unsurmountable – if he feels that clearly there is no appetite to fix the problems with his role. He will also be aware that resigning will bring significant consequences: misleading the adviser who oversees the ministerial code is a very serious failure and would put huge political pressure on the prime minister’s position.
However, the seriousness of his resignation means another course of action remains open to Geidt. The prime minister has said many times that high standards in government are important, and Geidt can now demand – in return for staying on – that the prime minister commit to bring in the changes to the adviser role which are clearly essential. Granting his adviser greater independence to conduct proper investigations would be a way for Johnson to show that he understands how much damage the last few weeks have done to his credibility. If he does not, Geidt would be justified in concluding that despite the prime minister’s warm words, he is not actually committed to improving standards and that the role is therefore not worth defending.