Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s newly-appointed ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus has completed the last outstanding report begun by his predecessor Christopher Geidt, who dramatically quit in June last year.
Lord Geidt became the second independent adviser on ministers interests to walk out on Boris Johnson in the space of 19 months when he resigned the post and complained of having been put in an “impossible and odious” position by the then-PM.
Geidt’s unfinished last report – into allegations of Islamophobia made by former transport minister Nusrat Ghani against former chief whip Mark Spencer – was the subject of widespread speculation, particularly in the six-month period when there was no ethics adviser in post.
Ghani’s grievances dated back to March 2020, after the reshuffle in which she lost her job as a junior transport minister, but they only came to public attention when she made a statement in January last year. She had complained about her concerns and talked to Johnson about them, however.
She said after losing her ministerial role she had been told that “Muslimness” had been “raised as an issue”; that her “Muslim women minister” status was “making colleagues uncomfortable”; and that she hadn’t done enough to “defend the party against Islamophobia allegations”.
Ghani’s statement did not name Spencer, who is now minister of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, he quickly identified himself as the source of her grievances – but said the claims were false and defamatory.
In his six-page report on the investigation, Magnus concluded that despite a review of “considerable” evidence, it had “not been possible” to draw a clear picture of what had been discussed between Ghani and Spencer at two meetings in March 2020.
“These discussions are central to the allegations made,” he said in a letter to Sunak dated 4 April but only published today. “Ms Ghani and Mr Spencer have differing accounts of these meetings, with different recollections of what was said.
“Each has provided evidence (including some contemporaneous notes) to support their respective accounts, but given the differing evidence presented to me, I am not able to conclude with sufficient confidence what was or was not said at these two meetings.”
Magnus said that while shortcomings in Spencer’s conduct had been identified, incluidng in a briefing on Ghani's concerns that was given to Johnson, he did not believe there was “a clear failure” to meet the standards set out in the ministerial code.
However, he said there were “procedural and pastoral lessons” from his investigation that those handling ministerial appointments and dismissals should consider in future. Magnus cited the lack of a more formal structure to the meetings between Ghani and Spencer and the absence of witnesses.
“It is important that all those involved are sensitive to the impact of what they say, consider carefully the content of their messaging, including the manner in which it is delivered, and respond promptly and sympathetically to queries or concerns,” he said.
Magnus urged Ghani – who is now a minister at the Department for Business and Trade – and Spencer to put their differences behind them.
“Three years have now elapsed since the meetings which triggered the commissioning of this investigation,” he said. “Both Ms Ghani and Mr Spencer consider each other to be mistaken in their recollections and both remain aggrieved and personally affected by the impact of this public disagreement.
“I would hope that, as dedicated public servants and ministers of the Crown, they will now find a way to move on from these events.”