If the ministerial code is completely malleable then we’re in deep trouble

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I posted this thread on Twitter this morning:

The new independent adviser on ministers’ interests, Christopher (Lord) Geidt gave two rulings yesterday. Both suggest that he is unfit for office...a thread.

In the first case he suggested that Boris Johnson did not break the ministerial code when having the prime ministerial flat refurbished. He suggested that Johnson was simply ‘unwise’ to allow the refurbishment without considering how it would be funded.

The project was initially paid for by Lord Brownlow, a Tory donor, and the Conservative Party. Geidt appears to have satisfied himself because Johnson, eventually, declared the arrangement.

This is astonishing. Johnson was clearly indifferent as to how a project was to funded, appears not to have asked how costs might be paid, had to use borrowed funds, and forgot to declare this for a long time and yet the code was not broken.

Instead criticism was cast on officials. They are apparently to blame for not keeping Johnson informed of the irregularity of the situation. So, officially, prime ministerial negligence as to his personal affairs (the spend was personal) is now official’s fault.

I recognise a supposed trust was involved but it was recklessly irresponsible of Johnson not to make enquiry on the issue in my opinion, and that left those managing his affairs in an invidious position. Nothing should have excused that, again in my opinion.

More astonishing was the opinion on Matt Hancock. He had a significant interest in a company run by his sister that secured a VIP NHS contract and apparently this breach was ‘technical’.

Let’s put this in context. As a chartered accountant I know the rules on conflicts of interest for my profession. I know that the penalties for beaching them are severe, appropriate and enforced. Hancock must know that that similar rules applied to ministers.

He breached them, in my opinion. Geidt described the breach as ‘technical’. Of course it was. All such breaches are ‘technical’ because the rules are ‘technical’. That means every breach is ‘technical’ and they should carry sanction. But not for Hancock, apparently.

There are real issues arising here. First, in both cases Geidt proves, in my opinion, that he is not bringing objectivity to his duties. I think that he should be ignoring facts such as party politics, which he specifically brought into his ruling on Johnson.

And on Hancock he should not have used ‘technical’ as an excuse. A breach should be treated as one, with sanction following.

The consequences are serious. In effect it is now apparent that the rules that must be upheld to maintain confidence in the integrity of our government are sufficiently malleable to excuse what seem to be significant breaches.

The specifics alone are worrying. A man who cannot in any way manage his own affairs is managing the country. Another who cannot see anything wrong with profiting his family as a result of being in office is in charge of hundreds of billions of funds. This stinks.

But in my opinion so too do the exonerations. I was troubled by the appointment of someone close to the government to the role Lord Geidt has. I am more deeply troubled now by the decisions that he has made. They appear to lack necessary objectivity.

His role required him to bring the demeanour of a judge to the task he had to undertake. That is most certainly not the impression gained from these decisions, both of which are inexplicable, including the willingness to blame others.

Geidt may think he has acted appropriately on the evidence. But his job was to persuade others of that as well. I am not convinced. I am far from being alone. And that suggests he has failed.

That failure is serious. It’s just another step on the way to the total breakdown of the supposed checks and balances in our system of government. Ministers will now feel that they can get away with anything. And that is deeply troubling.