Boris Johnson’s ethics chief quit amid row over trade watchdog

LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ethics chief quit after he was asked for advice on a trade tariffs plan he felt would amount to a “deliberate” breach of the ministerial code.

Christopher Geidt — tasked with policing the rules on ministers’ conduct as Johnson’s ministerial interests adviser — quit the government Wednesday, and a newly published exchange of letters makes clear the row centers on the U.K.’s independent trade watchdog, the Trade Remedies Authority.

Geidt told Johnson he had been asked “to offer a view about the government’s intention to consider measures which risk a deliberate and purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code,” a move which had placed him in an “impossible and odious position.”

The ex-adviser went on: “A deliberate breach, or even an intention to do so, would be to suspend the provisions of the code to suit a political end. This would make a mockery not only of respect of the code but license the suspension of its provisions in governing the conduct of Her Majesty’s Ministers. I can have no part in this.”

Johnson’s response in his own letter explicitly references the TRA, with the prime minister saying he had asked Geidt for “advice on potential future decisions related to the Trade Remedies Authority.”

The government is currently mulling extending a series of tariffs meant to protect domestic steel producers from cheap Chinese imports. Ministers previously overruled the TRA on scrapping some of those measures, but there are concerns such a move would breach World Trade Organization rules.

PM Boris Johnson sits in the cab of a construction digger as he visits Talbot Gateway | Peter Byrne/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Johnson does not mention the steel industry directly, saying only that he had sought Geidt’s advice on “the national interest in protecting a crucial industry, which is protected in other European countries and would suffer material harm if we do not continue to apply such tariffs.”

He added: “This has in the past had cross-party support. It would be in line with our domestic law but might be seen to conflict with our obligations under the WTO [World Trade Organization]. In seeking your advice before any decision was taken, I was looking to ensure that we acted properly with due regard to the ministerial code.”

Geidt’s dramatic exit also comes in the wake of the Partygate saga, which saw Johnson fined by police over a coronavirus lockdown-busting party in Downing Street.

In his resignation letter to Johnson, Geidt — the second person to quit the role under the current government — said he narrowly thought he could continue in the role after the Partygate scandal, but that he had changed his mind following the latest request.

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