Whitehall can no longer rely on the ‘good chap’ theory of government

Lord Christopher Geidt is the ultimate British “good chap”. Educated at public school before attending Cambridge university and the Sandhurst military academy, he rose to become the Queen’s most senior adviser. He was a natural choice, therefore, to be Boris Johnson’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, the arbiter of an ethics code that is meant to define what members of the government, including himself, can and cannot do.

The prime minister assumed he could rely on Geidt to smooth out the turbulent business of governing. But it was not to be. Indeed it was always uncertain if an establishment man could tame an agent of chaos.

Geidt’s resignation on Tuesday, accompanied by an incendiary letter to Johnson in which he explained he found himself in an “impossible and odious position”, came after he’d endured a year of successive scandals. Johnson’s first ministerial ethics adviser, Sir Alex Allan, quit after he disagreed over what constituted a breach of the code. His second had simply had enough.

Finding a third adviser will prove a challenge even for London’s most inventive recruitment consultants. Candidates may be put off by Johnson’s style of governing, but there is a more fundamental problem: the position no longer makes any sense. Now is the moment to decide what Whitehall’s ethics system should be.

Since the role of adviser was created in 2006, it has acquired a quasi-judicial status, with the holders having the power to make or break political careers. A summary of their adjudications and advice is published in an annual report, but there is no transparency about what they do or how they do it.

There is a contradiction in what the role is meant to achieve. Consider this: the prime minister’s personal adviser on standards is there to adjudicate on the code that covers all ministers, including the prime minister, who is actually the ultimate arbiter of the code. In short, the prime minister can be forced to adjudicate on himself.

The departure of Geidt should be the moment to acknowledge that Whitehall’s checks and balances are a mess. Either the ministerial code is a casual set of principles to be followed on an advisory basis, a view that Geidt flirted with accepting, or it is a formal rule book that acts as an employment contract.

If it is the latter, the ministerial interests adviser’s role should be codified. The holder of the post should be able to instigate investigations into breaches of the code and publish advice independently of Downing Street. But that comes with a clear risk: creating a power base in officialdom to rival that of politicians.

Geidt’s departure recalls the debate about what the historian Lord Peter Hennessy has termed the “good chap theory” of government. Hennessy argues that Britain has not needed a written constitution because the right sort of politician can be trusted to do the right thing.

Yet few leaders have measured up to such high ideals. Imagine what Geidt would have made of Robert Walpole, who spent time in the Tower of London and coined the maxim “every man has his price”. Or Anthony Eden lying over Suez. Or Harold Wilson doling out honours to assorted cronies. Or Tony Blair withholding Iraq war advice from his cabinet.

To his harshest critics, Johnson killed Hennessy’s theory stone dead — the historian said he has overseen “a bonfire of the decencies”. But perhaps we should ask if there has ever been a really good chap in Downing Street. More often than not, the inhabitants of Number 10 have been not quite right, but right enough.

Eventually, it will be up to voters to decide whether such an informal system has run its course. In the meantime, we are stuck with the worst of all worlds: the pantomime of a rules-based code and the pretence of decency.


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