Conservative leadership hopeful Liz Truss has refused to commit to appointing an independent ethics adviser if she becomes prime minister, suggesting it might be unnecessary because she understands the “difference between right and wrong”.
Instead of giving a clear answer when asked whether she would appoint an independent adviser on ministerial interests, Truss said yesterday that she would “ensure the correct apparatus is in place so that people are able to whistle-blow”.
The position has been vacant since Christopher Geidt resigned two months ago, saying he had been put in an "impossible and odious position" after being asked to consider a “deliberate and purposeful breach” of the ministerial code.
Whitehall watchers have been waiting to see when – and whether – Lord Geidt’s successor will be appointed. Downing Street said recruitment would not begin until the prime minister had decided whether the role needs to be changed.
Speaking at a leadership hustings in Birmingham, Truss said: “I do think one of the problems we have got in this country in the way we approach things is we have numerous advisers and independent bodies, and rules and regulations.
“For me it’s about understanding the difference between right and wrong, and I am somebody who has always acted with integrity… and that is what I would do as prime minister.”
Truss’s ambivalence goes against warnings not to scrap the post. Jonathan Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said in June that taking away an independent voice on standards from the heart of government “would risk further damage to public perceptions of standards”.
Geidt was the second independent ethics adviser appointed by Boris Johnson to step down in the space of three years. His predecessor, Sir Alex Allan, quit after the prime minister rejected the findings of his investigation into Priti Patel, which found the home secretary had broken the ministerial code by bullying staff.
The CSPL has called for the adviser role to be strengthened and for the powers that accompany it to be given statutory footing. In May, Johnson accepted some of its proposed changes, but ignored others. Crucially, he stopped short of allowing the adviser to instigate investigations without the PM’s say-so.
Writing for CSW earlier this month, former public appointments commissioner Sir Peter Riddell said the appointment of an adviser on ministerial interests would be an “immediate test” for Johnson’s successor. “A bold new prime minister could provide a major reassurance that they are determined to uphold – and restore – standards in public life,” he said.
“It is not just a question of who becomes the independent adviser but, crucially, on what terms,” Riddell wrote.
“The Geidt/Allan resignations showed the present system is not working and the government’s proposals in May did not satisfy the CSPL. Ministers pocketed the recommendation they liked – that there should be a graduated system of sanctions in the hands of the prime minister – but did not give the adviser full independence in initiating inquiries, since the PM has first to be consulted and give their consent.”
There is one "live investigation" still outstanding that began under Geidt but has not yet been published.
MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee wrote to cabinet secretary Simon Case last month asking him to explain how far the investigation had gone; whose responsibility it would be to continue it if; and who was in charge of publishing the findings once it had been completed.