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17 June 2022

Why did Christopher Geidt dither over his resignation?

The Prime Minister’s former ethics adviser decided to quit his role not over partygate, but rather obscure steel tariffs.

By Harry Lambert

Two major stories, one foreign and one domestic, are driving the news today. The FT splashes on how European leaders, on a visit to Kyiv, have committed to granting EU candidate status to Ukraine within weeks. Germany’s Olaf Scholz, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s Mario Draghi, and Klaus Iohannis, the President of Romania (a fourth musketeer who is being unfailingly left out of headlines and photos reporting on the trip) announced as much yesterday after touring Kyiv and Irpin.

Edward Luttwak, a noted war analyst, reports that the Biden administration “successfully induced the three reluctant warriors to travel to Kiev”, but their visit leaves Joe Biden himself as the sole major Western leader not to have been hosted in the capital by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. (It is hard to remember now, but Kyiv could have fallen; this piece from inside Zelensky’s compound captured that feeling at the time.)

[See also: Who in their right mind would replace Christopher Geidt?]

On the home front, the Bank of England has increased its inflation forecasts for the sixth time since February 2021. The Metro’s front page summarises the mood of many workers whose pay has been collapsing in real terms for the past year and is now set to fall further: “11 per cent hell is on the way”. As recently as November, the Bank was predicting inflation would stay below 5 per cent and have begun to fall by now. Instead we are headed for double-digit inflation in 2023, in part because of the war in Ukraine.

But the leading story in Westminster this week has been the resignation of Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser, Christopher Geidt, a man whose time in post will be remembered for his dither and delay in deciding when to end it. Having failed to stand down over partygate, Geidt has oddly quit over an issue that does not seem to warrant his departure.

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Geidt’s resignation letter, released by No 10 yesterday, begins with four paragraphs of fairly tortuous self-justification, in which he explains why he did not resign over partygate by “a very small margin”. Then, almost as an afterthought, Geidt writes that he was asked for a view on the government’s “intention to consider measures which risk a deliberate and purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code”. Geidt, helpfully, does not specify what he means, but Johnson’s reply to him explains that Geidt is referring to government plans to uphold a set of obscure steel tariffs. Geidt appears to have quit because those tariffs may breach World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

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This is a strange act. As the BBC explains, WTO rules are not considered to have been breached until one country objects to another’s conduct; and a breach is not even considered a resigning offence for ministers. Ethics advisers are not, in any case, meant to judge the morality of political decisions made on an international stage.

So why was Geidt asked for his view? “This request has placed me in an impossible and odious position,” Geidt wrote grandly in his letter. But some MPs think he was deliberately placed there by No 10, who wanted to give Geidt a weak reason for quitting rather than a strong one. “It’s weird they asked him about it,” says a Tory MP. “It’s as if they engineered it to ask him about something he would describe as unethical.” The MP is not alone in thinking No 10, not wanting Geidt’s departure to hang over them any longer, “wanted him to resign over something no one can understand”.

[ See also: Europeans were united in support of Ukraine, but that consensus is fraying ]

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