Former Downing Street ethics adviser Christopher Geidt has prompted fresh calls for Boris Johnson’s resignation, by declaring that his decision to quit his post was prompted by the prime minister’s willingness deliberately to breach international law.
In a second letter to explain his shock resignation on Wednesday, Lord Geidt said that the details of the row over steel tariffs which finally provoked his departure were a “distraction” from his real motivation.
His comments suggest that his anxiety about Mr Johnson’s behaviour goes far wider – and may include concern over the PM’s bid to override the Northern Ireland protocol in a way which will breach the Brexit treaty he signed less than three years ago.
Approvingly quoting former cabinet secretary Lord Butler’s judgement that “this isn’t about steel”, Lord Geidt said that he walked out because he was not ready to endorse the government’s openness towards breaking its international obligations.
The new letter ramps up pressure once more on the prime minister over the standards of his behaviour, after he initially deflected much criticism in the wake of the resignation of a second independent adviser on ministerial interests in the space of less than two years.
Mr Johnson has come under fire for suggesting he may abolish the role of independent adviser, and replace Geidt instead with an anonymous committee who would be unlikely to command the same high profile.
In a letter to Mr Johnson explaining his decision to quit, released on Thursday, the former private secretary to the Queen said he had been placed in an “odious and impossible” position when asked to advise on the government’s plans to maintain tariffs on Chinese steel in possible contravention of World Trade Organisation rules.
His explanation – coming in the wake of highly-publicised differences over Partygate and the refurbishment of the PM’s flat – diminished the impact of his dramatic departure and allowed Mr Johnson’s allies to portray the prime minister as a champion of UK industry.
But today’s letter to the chair of the Commons Public Administration Committee William Wragg made clear that steel was a side issue to more profound worries about Johnson’s stewardship of Downing Street.
“Emphasis on the steel tariffs question is a distraction,” wrote Lord Geidt.
“It was simply one example of what might yet constitute deliberate breaches by the United Kingdom of its obligations under international law, given the government’s widely publicised openness to this.”
Although references to international law were removed from the ministerial code of conduct in 2015, Lord Geidt said it was still widely held that a breach would automatically break the terms of the code – something regarded until recently as a resigning matter.
“I could not be a party to advising on any potential law-breaking,” he said.
Lord Geidt said that the “cautious” tone of his letter to the prime minister had caused “confusion about the precise cause” of his decision to quit.
His letter was wrongly interpreted to suggest that his objection was limited to “narrow and technical consideration of steel tariffs”, when in fact it had a “far wider scope”, he told Mr Wragg.
Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “This letter confirms what we already knew. Lord Geidt quit because he was sick of being asked to cover up for Boris Johnson’s law-breaking.
“Any other prime minister would have resigned by now; instead Johnson’s answer is to rewrite the rules to protect his own job.”