Boris Johnson has denied breaching the ministerial code after his standards adviser urged him to explain himself over his Partygate fine.
Lord Christopher Geidt said there was a “legitimate question” over whether the fine the prime minister received for breaking Covid regulations was a breach of the code, in his annual report on ministers’ interests.
The report noted that Johnson had failed to publicly explain his position on this despite Geidt's repeated warnings to No.10 that the PM should be ready to do this even if he does not judge himself to be in breach of the code.
The independent adviser on ministerial standards threatened to resign during a discussion with the PM on Tuesday morning unless Johnson issued a public explanation about his conduct, according to The Times.
Responding in a letter to the adviser published on gov.uk, Johnson blamed “a failure of communication between our offices” and said he was not aware of the of the importance Geidt had placed on him making explicit reference to the ministerial code over the Partygate fine.
The ministerial code outlines the rules government ministers must follow, including the overarching duty to comply with the law.
Setting out why he did not believe he had breached the code, the PM said he had “unwittingly” breached regulations and had subsequently apologised for his mistake and corrected the parliamentary record for incorrect statements that he said were made “in good faith”.
He gave the same verdict for the fixed penalty chancellor Rishi Sunak received. Johnson and Sunak were both fined for breaching Covid regulations whilst attending a gathering in the cabinet room for the PM’s birthday on 19 June 2020.
Geidt said he had attempted to avoid offering advice to the PM about whether the fine had breached the code as, if Johnson rejected this advice, he would be forced to resign. He said “such a circular process could only risk placing the ministerial code in a place of ridicule”.
Instead, Geidt said he has repeatedly told Johnson’s team – since the start of inquiries into Partygate began in December – that the PM “should be ready to offer public comment on his obligations under the ministerial code, even if he has judged himself not to be in breach”.
Geidt said he was assured that this advice had been passed on to PM, but the advice had “not been heeded”, with the PM making no public references to the Ministerial Code in relation to Partygate fines.
The standards adviser had pushed for "considerably greater authority" after after Geidt was not informed about a key piece of evidence in a row over the PM's Downing Street flat refurbishment.
Johnson apologised for failing to provide Geidt with details of all his communications with a Tory donor who funded the £142,000 refurbishment of his No.11 Downing Street flat.
Changes to the ministerial code were announced on Friday, which included giving Geidt the power to initiate his own investigations into ministerial conduct, albeit only with the PM’s approval. The PM will need strong reasons for refusal, such as national security concerns, and the adviser will be able to publish the reasons for a PM’s refusal.
Commenting on the reforms in his annual report, Geidt they are “at a low level of ambition” but would be workable under normal circumstances. However, he said the circumstances in the past year have been “far from normal”.
He said “an impression has developed that the PM may be unwilling to have his own conduct judged against the code’s obligations” and suggested this would have a negative effect on public trust in the code and Geidt’s own role.
"It may be especially difficult to inspire that trust in the ministerial code if any prime minister, whose code it is, declines to refer to it," he said.
"It may be that the prime minister considers that no such breach of his ministerial code has occurred. In that case, I believe a prime minister should respond accordingly, setting out his case in public."
Johnson’s previous standards adviser, Sir Alex Allan, resigned when the PM rejected his advice that home secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code.