Former cabinet secretary Andrew Turnbull has said Boris Johnson is “not worthy of the office” of prime minister in an interview following the resignation of Christopher Geidt.
The PM’s special adviser on ministerial interests quit last night, a day after appearing at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, where he told MPs resignation was “always on the agenda”.
Lord Turnbull said “something has to be done” about the PM’s conduct and that he was confident Conservative backbenchers would “eventually” act.
Lord Geidt is the second standards adviser to quit in the last 19 months. Sir Alex Allan resigned in November 2020 after Johnson rejected his findings that home secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code by bullying her staff.
“To have two resignations from this position, which is a key part of the structure, is very serious,” Turnbull told Newsnight.
“On the other hand, paradoxically it changes absolutely nothing and the reason it changes absolutely nothing is that the charge sheet of Boris Johnson’s conduct is so long that one more accusation in it is not going to make a difference.
“Because this matter is not going to be solved by ministerial advisers. It is going to be solved when enough of his backbenchers can summon up the courage to decide that he is not the man of sufficient integrity that they want to have him as their leader or that the country should have him as their leader.
“The issue still remains that the opinion of many people, myself included, is that he is not worthy of the office. Something has to be done and it’s the Conservative backbenchers who will do it.”
Geidt’s announcement yesterday did not give a reason for his resignation, saying only that it was the “right thing” to do.
However his resignation letter to the prime minister, published this morning, explained that he had been tasked with a request to give advice on “the government's intention to consider measures which risk deliberate and purposeful reach of the ministerial code”.
He said a deliberate breach of the code 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” and that the request had put him in an “impossible and odious position”.
Speculating on Geidt’s reasons for quitting before the letter was published, Turnbull said: “I think the fact he has resigned tells you that he doesn’t really think his advice is being respected and acted on and therefore he cannot stay.”
Turnbull, who was cabinet secretary from 2002 to 2005 under Tony Blair’s Labour government, said further accusations against Johnson would likely have no more effect “because he will brush them aside as he has brushed everything else aside”.
But he said the Conservative Party has the power to decide whether the PM’s standards are satisfactory.
The crossbench peer said the party’s vote of confidence in the PM last week was probably premature but MPs would “eventually” come to the conclusion that a new leader is needed when they “see that his conduct is a big negative…with the electorate”.
He also accused Johnson of attempting to reverse decades of work to improve ethics in government.
“Over the last 30 years, since the original Nolan report, a whole series of measures and institutions have been set up and Lord Evans, the current chairman of the standards committee, wants to take that further,” he said.
“But it's clear to me that Boris Johnson really wants to wind this back. And the pattern of behaviour is that anyone who has the power to criticise, obstruct or force him to change, he will try to reduce their power, suborn them, on in the last resort just wave them aside.”
Turnbull has previously hit out at the PM over Partygate. In a BBC Panorama documentary, broadcast on January 31, he said Johnson was "demeaning the office of prime minister", accusing him of using a "schoolboy’s dog-ate-my-homework series of excuses" to justify the Covid scandal.
No.10 has been approached for comment.