In an interview with Sky News Boris Johnson was asked: “Lord Geidt’s letters are going to be published soon, do you really expect the public to believe you didn’t disclose key messages with Lord Brownlow about the refurbishment of your flat because you had a new phone”. Mr Johnson replied by saying “I followed the Ministerial Guidance at all times”.
The background to this comment is as follows. In his initial report on the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat, Lord Geidt, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, concluded that Johnson had acted ‘unwisely’ in allowing it to go ahead ‘without more rigorous regard for how this would be funded.’
He nevertheless accepted that Johnson had declared the interests arising from Lord Brownlow’s funding of the refurbishment as soon as he became aware of them in February 2021 and that they were ‘consistent with the provisions of the Ministerial Code.’
However, a subsequent investigation by the Electoral Commission found correspondence from Lord Brownlow in November 2020, which Johnson had failed to disclose to the Independent Adviser. After Johnson had contacted Brownlow to arrange a payment for the refurbishment, Brownlow explained that a projected blind trust had not yet been set up, adding that ‘approval is a doddle as it’s only me and I know where the £ will come from.’
In a letter to the Prime Minister following this revelation, Lord Geidt expressed doubt about his earlier conclusion that ‘at the point when the Prime Minister became aware, he took steps to make the relevant declaration and to seek advice.’
Geidt nevertheless stood by his verdict that there was no conflict of interest under the Ministerial Code. While this stance was widely derided, some experts suggest it reflected ‘a tactical’ response to the limitations of the Independent Adviser’s authority.
One possibility was that faced by his predecessor Sir Alex Allen, who concluded that Home Secretary Priti Patel had broken the Ministerial Code over bullying, only to resign when the Prime Minister over-ruled him.
If Lord Geidt had found a breach of the code by the Prime Minister, he risked being put in the same position, even if that would have gravely damaged Johnson.
In December, the Institute for Government's Catherine Haddon argued that 'the seriousness of his resignation means another course of action remains open to Geidt.’
The Prime Minister has said many times that high standards in government are important, and Geidt can now demand – in return for staying on – that the Prime Minister commit to bring in the changes to the adviser role which are clearly essential.
Rose Whiffen of Transparency International suggests this was the course Lord Geidt ultimately chose:
...the letters between Boris Johnson and Lord Geidt suggest he sought to use this as leverage to secure a review of his role and potentially ‘fortify’ it. Better to be in the tent, as they say. While this may be tactically astute, it does not resolve some of the structural deficiencies at play.
The outcome reflected the essential weakness of Geidt’s advisory role. When he resigned from the position, Alex Allen acknowledged that ‘it is for the Prime Minister to make a judgement on whether actions by a minister amount to a breach of the Ministerial Code.’
We approached Mr Johnson’s office, the Cabinet Office and the No 10 Press Office to give them a chance to comment, but received no response. We also approached Lord Geidt for comment but again received no response.
Boris Johnson withheld relevant information from Lord Geidt, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, about his dealings with Tory donor Lord Brownlow. In an eye-catching decision, Lord Geidt did not conclude that by withholding information Johnson had breached the Ministerial Code. It may be relevant in this context that Lord Geidt’s predecessor Sir Alex Allen, who concluded that Home Secretary Priti Patel had broken the Ministerial Code over bullying, felt obliged to resign when the Prime Minister over-ruled him.