Prime minister Boris Johnson’s top standards adviser has defended his scrutiny of the Partygate affair and insisted that the Cabinet Office probe into Coronavirus-restrictions-breaking events in Downing Street did not infringe on his remit.
Independent adviser on ministers’ interests Lord Christopher Geidt was quizzed about his role and powers by members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, following the publication of his annual report. The document, made public at the end of last month, pointedly noted Johnson’s failure to address the “legitimate question” of whether his Partygate fine constituted a breach of the ministerial code.
MPs asked Geidt whether he felt the Cabinet Office-led investigation into rule-breaking get-togethers in No.10 and other parts of Whitehall, which prompted a Metropolitan Police probe and Johnson’s fine – along with another 125 fixed-penalty notices – was an incursion into his territory.
“The inquiries did not begin by being squarely in my remit,” Geidt told the committee. “They were initiated without any appreciating of ministerial involvement. The inquiries were initiated because the conduct of special advisers and officials was in scope. That was the nature of the inquiry that was commissioned.
“I’m not held back from offering advice on the basis of other people’s inquiry, and clearly the Sue Gray report was in the business of getting to the bottom of everything, which in course included reference to ministers. It was for that reason that the standing counsel that I’d given to advisers began the moment that it became apparent that a ministerial involvement was at issue.”
Geidt said that while the Met investigation did not provide him with a body of evidence he could consider, it was clear that Gray’s report – originally launched under cabinet secretary Simon Case – was “getting into all the areas”.
As of last month, Geidt has seen his powers increased in a way that allows him to launch his own investigations into ministerial conduct, subject to a limited veto from the prime minister in areas that meet a “high standard” for being left alone, such as national security concerns. The new powers also give the independent adviser the right to publicly record that permission to launch an investigation has been withheld.
Quizzed about whether the new powers would have been sufficient to launch an inquiry into the prime minister being issued with a fixed-penalty notice, Geidt appeared to suggests that they would.
Geidt said he had been contacted by “many people” pointing out that receipt and payment of a fixed-penalty notice constituted a breach of the ministerial code.
“It’s reasonable to say that perhaps a fixed penalty notice and a prime minister paying for it may have constituted not meeting the overarching duty under the ministerial code of complying with the law,” he said.
However he also said that the powers available to him in April, when the fine was issued and paid, did not allow him to launch an investigation without the prime minister’s approval, and that Johnson had answered the call for comment included in the independent adviser’s annual report.
That response involved Johnson denying he had breached the ministeral code.
Committee chair William Wragg said the timing of the prime minister’s decision to expand Geidt’s investigatory powers after the event seemed “a bit odd”.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life has called for the powers of the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial standards to be put on a statutory basis. But Geidt refused to offer an opinion, despite multiple questions from committee members.
“That’s a policy matter for government,” he said in response to one such question. “My role is really as the practitioner to understand and make whatever comes my way operate.”
Geidt said arguing for or against his role receiving a statutory footing could be seen as “offering a prejudicial comment into a policy arena”.
“I’ve seen the Committee on Standards in Public life’s work and I’m aware of the scope of their ambition by way of a recommendation to the prime minister,” he said.
Asked whether statutory footing might benefit the independent adviser role – rather than his own work, Geidt responded: “I haven’t really worked that through”.
At Tuesday's session, Geidt acknowledged that resignation was “always on the agenda as an available remedy to a particular problem” with No.10. He pointed out that had been the course of action his predecessor Sir Alex Allan had followed when the prime minister rejected his findings that home secretary Priti Patel broke the ministerial code by bullying her staff.
Less than a year into his time as independent adviser, Geidt reportedly considered resigning after it emerged that key communications relating to his investigations into the funding of refurbishment work on the prime minister's Downing Street flat had not been passed on by the Cabinet Office.
Committee member David Jones said it was frustrating that Geidt had made no recommendations about how the committee might improve what he and future independent advisers had to work with.
“The purpose of this committee is to consider public administration and to consider ways in which it might be improved,” he said.
“We rather hoped we might have had some assistance from you in this session today. In fact, all that you’ve said studiously and repeatedly is that it’s not your role to offer such advice or to express any such opinion.”
Geidt said it would be better for him to make a response to any government proposals that sprang from the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s suggestions.
“I could certainly then speak to the merits of a proposal, once the government has made it,” he said.