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Ethics adviser to scandal-hit UK leader Boris Johnson quits

June 16, 2022 GMT
In this photo provided by UK Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
In this photo provided by UK Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
In this photo provided by UK Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
In this photo provided by UK Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
In this photo provided by UK Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)

LONDON (AP) — The ethics adviser to Britain’s scandal-hit Prime Minister Boris Johnson has quit and accused the Conservative government of planning to flout conduct rules, weeks after a separate investigation criticized the U.K. leader for overseeing a culture of government rule-breaking.

Christopher Geidt stepped down late Wednesday as Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, a decision the government said came as a surprise.

In a resignation letter, which was published Thursday by the government, Geidt said he was put in an “impossible and odious position” because the prime minister had asked him to advise on measures that would “risk a deliberate and purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code” that regulates government conduct.

He did not elaborate but said: “I can have no part in this.”

In a response, Johnson indicated the issue concerned tariffs imposed to protect a “crucial industry” which might “be seen to conflict with our obligations” under the World Trade Organization.

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The government declined to confirm reports that the industry is steelmaking, citing “commercial sensitivity.” Britain has imposed restrictions on imports of Chinese steel to protect its domestic industry.

Johnson’s government kept most of the “steel safeguard” measures in place last year, overruling advice from its trade advisory body to lift some of them. Ministers are currently considering whether to extend them again.

Johnson’s spokesman said “no decisions have been taken” on what to do about the tariffs.

Geidt had stayed in his job as Johnson was buffeted by allegations about his judgment and ethics, culminating in the “partygate” scandal over parties in government buildings during Britain’s coronavirus lockdowns.

Johnson was one of 83 people fined by police for attending the parties, and a civil servant’s report said the prime minister and senior officials must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment” that created a culture of rule-breaking in government.

When he was quizzed by lawmakers this week, Geidt acknowledged he felt “frustration” in his job, noting that he was appointed by the prime minister and so not “truly independent.”

The resignation of his hand-picked ethics adviser is the latest blow for Johnson. He survived a no-confidence vote by his own Conservative Party last week but was left weakened after 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to remove him.

Johnson still faces a parliamentary ethics probe that could conclude he deliberately misled Parliament over “partygate” — traditionally a resigning offense.

No replacement has been named for Geidt. Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, said the prime minister was reviewing “how best to carry out” the ethics role.

Geidt’s predecessor as ethics adviser, Alex Allan, also quit, stepping down in November 2020 after the prime minister ignored his finding that a Cabinet member, Home Secretary Priti Patel, had bullied her staff and broken the ministerial code of conduct — also usually a resigning offense.

“For the prime minister to lose one adviser on ministers’ interests may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness,” said Conservative lawmaker William Wragg, a critic of Johnson.

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Geidt, a former private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II, had been accused of going easy on top officials in his investigations. Last year, he cleared Johnson of breaking the ministerial code when the leader failed to disclose that a Conservative party donor had funded a pricey refurbishment of the prime minister’s official residence.

In April, he cleared Treasury chief Rishi Sunak of wrongdoing over his wife’s tax affairs and his possession of a U.S. permanent resident’s card.