Boris Johnson’s new independent ethics adviser has said he is ready to follow his predecessor in taking the “nuclear option” of resigning if the prime minister ignores his recommendations.
The row over the flat is the biggest issue facing the Queen’s former private secretary following his appointment as independent adviser on ministerial interests on 28 April.
He revealed that he was not approached to take up the position until late March. The post had been vacant following the resignation of predecessor Sir Alex Allan in response to his bullying findings against Priti Patel was overruled by Mr Johnson.
Lord Geidt told the House of Commons Public Administration Committee that he will advise Mr Johnson on what declaration of interest, if any, he should make concerning renovations to the No 11 apartment he shares with fiancee Carrie Symonds. The bill for at least part of the work, reported to have cost as much as £200,000, is thought initially to have been covered by the Conservative Party or a wealthy donor before the PM paid for it himself.
Any declaration will be included in the delayed ministerial register of interests, which was due to be released in December but is now intended to appear by the end of May, said Lord Geidt.
He told the committee: “I am absolutely determined to ensure that a full list is published as quickly as possible. I’m determined that it should be published by the end of this month. I wish to propose that all cabinet ministers’ interests should be properly re-submitted.
“I’ve been asked to make inquiry of the facts and circumstances of the refurbishment of the flat at Downing Street, and to advise the prime minister on his declaration of interest.”
He made clear that he intends to publish his advice to the PM “alongside that declaration of interests”.
Lord Geidt insisted that he was ready to “speak truth unto power” in his new role.
“I’m absolutely determined to assert that I would be undertaking this role without fear or favour,” he told the committee.
He added: “I need to ensure that I conduct this role to the very best of my ability and do all I can to ensure that it can radiate, for the purpose of public and parliamentary confidence, the necessary degree of independence.”
Lord Geidt said that his predecessor’s resignation, after Mr Johnson overruled him and cleared Ms Patel in November, may have increased public confidence in the Downing Street standards system.
“To an important degree, Sir Alex’s resignation, was itself a signal about the integrity of the appointment,” he told the MPs.
And he added: “Sir Alex Allan only had one rather nuclear option, which was to resign. But equally … that itself sent a signal into the public square.
“My hunch is that any prime minister would wish to avoid the regular resignations of independent advisers.”
Pressed on whether he would be willing to resign if his advice was overruled or ignored, Lord Geidt said: “If it came to it, I could.”
Lord Geidt said he hoped his role would enable him to promote good conduct in government, but said that ministers including the PM need to take the lead.
“Good behaviour is a very difficult thing to legislate,” he said.
But committee member Loyd Russell-Moyle said that his role risked being a “fig-leaf” because he cannot launch an investigation without the PM’s approval.
Lord Geidt said that unlike earlier advisers, his terms of reference permit him privately to suggest the launch of inquiries into alleged standards breaches to the PM.
But he acknowledged that if his recommendation of a probe was rejected, the matter will remain “behind closed doors”.
Mr Russell-Moyle said the danger was that the adviser would be given a “there, there’ chat” with the prime minister over a cup of coffee but then be told not to press ahead with investigations.
Lord Geidt said that he sought assurances before taking up the role that he would be able to bring concerns to the PM for possible investigation and that he would be able promptly to publish his advice on any inquiries which go ahead.
He told MPs he did not see “any difficulties at all” in “dispassionately and impartially” advising Mr Johnson while simultaneously investigating him.
Labour committee member John McDonnell said that Lord Geidt’s account of cabinet secretary Simon Case approaching him to consider role “sounds like a very old-school conversation in the civil service club when the port is passed around”.
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