The prime minister has appointed a former private secretary to the Queen as his independent adviser on ministers’ interests – but has refused to give him the authority to launch investigations.
Lord Christopher Geidt, a crossbench peer and privy councillor, fills the vacancy left after Sir Alex Allan resigned from the role over Boris Johnson’s handling of a bullying inquiry into home secretary Priti Patel. Allan’s inquiry found evidence that Patel had bullied staff, but Johnson declined to take action, saying she had not broken the ministerial code.
The job has been vacant since November, a cause of frustration for MPs and former civil servants, who have said the independent adviser should have been tasked with investigating the lobbying row involving former prime minister David Cameron and Greensill Capital. Liaison Committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin had said candidates for the role should only take it on if they were prepared to lead such an investigation.
Alongside the appointment, the Cabinet Office has published new terms of reference for the adviser role that will give Geidt the authority to advise on the initiation of investigations. Previously, advisers have only been able to investigate matters when they have been referred to them.
In a letter to Committee on Standards in Public Life chair Lord Evans, Johnson wrote that the change had come about because “I can now see that it is in the public’s interest for the adviser to have an active role in considering if a matter should be investigated and providing confidential advice about this to me.”
CSPL had previously called for the adviser to be given the power to open an investigation themselves, without the PM’s go-ahead.
But Johnson said as prime minister, he “would not wish to abrogate the ultimate responsibility for deciding on an investigation into allegations of ministerial misconduct”.
He added that extending the adviser’s powers further could lead to them becoming embroiled in “trivial or vexatious complaints”, suggesting it could incentivise people to make these complaints “spuriously… for partisan reasons”.
Johnson said he had taken CSPL’s recommendations to appoint the adviser for a five-year, non-renewable term, and that they should be supported by civil servants that do not report to ministers.
In response, Evans said he welcomed the changes but that CSPL will consider “how far the new arrangements provide the degree of independence and transparency that the committee believes is necessary” as part of its ongoing review into standards.
Evans also said Geidt is a “man of integrity, with a long career in public service”.
In a letter to the PM on his appointment, Geidt said he was “grateful to have your agreement that those terms of reference will now be varied to stiffen the degree of independence of this post”. He said revising the terms would otherwise have been his “first task” in the job.
“On this basis, I am glad to accept appointment as independent adviser,” he wrote.
“I look forward to serving you and the office of prime minister, and to playing a part in maintaining the integrity of the ministerial code.”
Geidt brings a “distinguished record of impartial public service and experience of government to bear on the appointment”, the Cabinet Office said in an announcement yesterday.
He was private secretary to the Queen for 10 years up to 2017.
He is currently chair of King’s College London, as well as chair responsible for international relations and corporate responsibility at asset-management company Schroders plc.