Boris Johnson cannot be challenged in a confidence ballot for a second time within a year under the present rules. Will the 1922 Committee’s Executive change them in the wake of Lord Geidt’s resignation as the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests?
Geidt clearly feels that Boris Johnson has no proper sense of the importance of the Ministerial Code – and that he has therefore been made to look weak if not risible. That was the sum of the recent introduction to his annual report.
The rough ride he got earlier this week when giving evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs may have confirmed that view for him. But it isn’t clear as I write why he has suddenly quit. His brief statement doesn’t offer an explanation.
Downing Street says that Geidt’s resignation “comes as a total surprise and a mystery to the Prime Minister” and that earlier this week he was “asked to provide advice on a commercially sensitive matter in the national interest”.
Which doesn’t tell us very much either. Did that advice and Number Ten’s treatment of it contribute to the resignation? Or is Number Ten simply providing evidence of Geidt working as usual before making an unexpected decision? What was this “commercially sensitive matter” and how did it affect “the national interest?”
Losing a second “ethics adviser”, as Geidt’s role is sometimes described, is undoubtedly bad for the Prime Minister – a further lurch of this bus driven by the Marx Brothers, as some will see the Government he leads.
Johnson may find it hard to obtain a third adviser in a row, or to withhold publication of whatever resignation letter Geidt has sent. But there’s reason to think that his stupendous luck runs on. Had Geidt quit during the run-up to last week’s confidence ballot, the Prime Minister might have lost it. As it is, the prospect of a fresh vote remains elusive.
Will the 1922 Committee’s Executive really rush to change them because a second ethics adviser has quit? To do so would draw accusations of from Johnson’s supporters of its members, as it were, seeking to re-run the F.A Cup Final because they didn’t like the result.
Furthermore, while Geidt’s resignation will make waves within SW1, he isn’t a well-known figure outside it. The post-bag that Conservative MPs receive on the subject will mostly be from the usual suspects.
Could members of the Cabinet suddenly resign too, claiming that the Prime Minister’s authority is shot? Perhaps, but how likely is such a development, given Johnson’s insulation from another challenge? In any event, the rule of resignations is: easy out – not so easy back in. Which matters to ambitious politicians.
In any event, Graham Brady and his colleages will be shy of appearing partisan. Some of those MPs who want a challenge rule change will want to wait until after the forthcoming by-elections.
Or until the Privileges Committee’s report into whether Johnson deliberately misled the Commons over Downing Street parties is published. As Sir Alfred Prufrock found himself thinking recently, there’s always a reason to put off difficult decisions.
Geidt’s reluctance to publish reasons for his departure confirms what we know of his character – that he is a gentleman who likes to play by the rules. The Prime Minister may find it hard to find a replacement.
He thus joins a long list of authority figures who have somehow been flummoxed, bested and upended by the subversive Johnson. These include: Max Hastings, his former editor at the Daily Telegraph, who helped to create the phenomenon that he now decries.
Conrad Black, then the paper’s proprietor, to whom Johnson made a promise not to seek a Commons seat. John Major, who fought unsuccessfully to keep him off the Conservative candidates’ list.
Michael Howard, who sacked him from the Tory front bench for dissembling…but then saw Johnson’s career at the top outlast and outdazzle his. David Cameron, who Johnson pitched out of office by co-leading Vote Leave’s successful campaign against EU membership.
And, of course, a parade of others stretching from Martin Hammond, his housemaster at Eton, to Alex Aitken, Geidt’s predecessor in the ethics role. Not to mention Dominic Cummings (who I thereby mention).
“I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else,” Hammond once wrote to Stanley Johnson. I gesture at this queue of the walking wounded, snaking the length of the Wembley Way, less in censure than a strange kind of admiration.
For the Prime Minister may well survive my gloomy sense that time is running out for him, and that he’d do best to get ahead by getting out. Who would bet against Johnson’s luck, his Ozymandian sense of destiny?
As, zing! Geidt goes – and, hey, it’s party time at Number Ten. What’s that funky beat booming out from the flat? Yes, folks, it’s Freddie Mercury: “Another one bites the dust. / Another one bites the dust /And another one gone and another one gone/ Another one bites the dust…”