Democracy

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Civil Disservice: The Art and Craft of Lying for Britain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 22/06/2022 - 12:07am in

Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall charts how she was employed to bend the truth – and the consequences of this for our current politics

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Many of those who criticised my decision to resign from the Foreign Office in December 2019, on the basis that I was unwilling to promote the Government’s half-truths about Brexit, cited the old saw by Sir Henry Wotton in 1604 – that “an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” – or the more recent quote by Ambrose Pierce – that diplomacy is “the patriotic art of lying for one’s country”. 

At the time, I was able to laugh off such comments.

The people making them were effectively agreeing that the Government was lying about Brexit, and merely contending that I should have supported those lies – hardly persuasive. Integrity is also supposed to be one of the core principles of the Civil Service and one I believed I had upheld throughout my career.  

However, a recent remark by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis prompted me to reflect on my time as a diplomat.

During an interview with the BBC, he accused the EU of being “disingenuous” about offering “flexibilities” on the Northern Ireland Protocol. But being disingenuous is a fundamental British skill and one which, I realise, was elevated to an art form in the Foreign Office, where I worked for 33 years.

Communication is one of the core competences British diplomats are expected to possess – the ability to communicate complex issues clearly and concisely; and being able to persuade others to accept the British point of view or preferred version of events and to agree to our preferred course of action. But this is not the same thing as speaking honestly.

In fact, when I was a diplomat, effective communication skills frequently required the ability to spin or gloss over inconvenient facts to suit the British narrative. This was never presented as 'lying' – indeed, the Foreign Office prided itself on upholding the Civil Service values of integrity and honesty and we were all instructed never to be caught saying an outright lie. 

But as I now review my time as a diplomat – with the benefit of a few years distance – I am ashamed to admit that, for much of my career, we were doing exactly that. And not just to foreigners, but to our own fellow citizens.

Cambodian Refugee Camps

I began lying to British voters right in my very first job, as desk officer for Thailand, Burma and Laos from 1987 to 1988.

At the time, Oxfam was running a major campaign to persuade the Government to stop providing humanitarian aid to Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand, on the basis that the Khmer Rouge was in practice diverting the aid for its own purposes, while neglecting the people for whom the aid was intended.

Thousands of Oxfam supporters wrote letters to their MPs who forwarded them to the Foreign Office for a response. I helped write the stock reply which we sent out in droves, saying something along the lines that 'we regularly coordinate with the UN to monitor delivery of our aid'. This was superficially true – we did coordinate regularly with the UN – but also misleading, because in practice we only monitored the aid up to the outskirts of the camp.

The Khmer Rouge blocked UN agencies from entering the camps and completely controlled the distribution of aid once it was inside the camp. 

As a new desk officer, I did what I was told and helped churn out literally thousands of these letters for several months. But, one day, fed up with the amount of time it was taking (this was before computers – each letter had to be typed by hand), and also feeling uneasy about their content, I approached my head of department.

I suggested a change of approach. Instead of dismissing Oxfam’s concerns with bland assurances, why didn’t we just engage on the issue? If it turned out that Oxfam’s concerns were right, why not stop the aid – because it surely was not British policy to be empowering the Khmer Rouge? To my astonishment, they agreed to take up the idea. A few months later, Britain did change its policy and stopped all aid to Khmer Rouge-run camps. 

The Balkans Conflict

In the early 1990s, I was head of humanitarian affairs section in the Foreign Office’s United Nations Department, responsible for policy on refugees, war crimes, the Geneva Conventions and the UN’s Humanitarian Agencies.

The biggest crisis was the conflict in the Balkans, precipitated by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia after the end of the Cold War. The conflict was most brutal in ethnically diverse Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs drove more than a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats from their homes in a process of ethnic cleansing. 

 The UK poured in humanitarian aid and supported the deployment of UN peacekeepers, but for years resisted proposals for more robust intervention.

Instead, officials regularly drafted statements and resolutions condemning atrocities 'by all sides' and calling on 'all sides' to exercise restraint – without ever acknowledging the plain truth that, by far, the most atrocities were being committed by one side, the Bosnian Serbs, who were also the aggressors.

To the irritation of senior officials, I regularly stuck my hand up in morning meetings to object to this ostensibly 'balanced' language which misrepresented the situation. But the language remained distorted, and we remained “even-handed” – until Bill Clinton decided to support a decisive NATO intervention against the Bosnian Serbs which brought the war to an end. 

Iraqi Sanctions

I witnessed similar disingenuousness in the late 1990s, when I was working on Iraq policy.

The UN Security Council had refused to lift sanctions imposed on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, until Iraq had accounted for all its alleged weapons of mass destruction. In 1995, two scientists who surveyed the country on behalf of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation assessed that as many as 576,000 Iraqi children may have died as a consequence of the sanctions.

Again, the Foreign Office received many letters from MPs’ constituents expressing concern. And again, I helped churn out hundreds of replies saying that it was not the fault of the sanctions, but of the Iraqi Government, which had refused to accept the Security Council’s offer to let it sell oil in order to purchase food and medicines under UN supervision.

As before, our reply was technically correct – but it was also misleading, in that it glossed over British responsibility for the humanitarian situation, which undoubtedly was exacerbated by its sanctions. 

Aftermath of 9/11

In 2001, I briefly worked as the head of press in the British Embassy in Washington, after 9/11. In that job, you would think the role would involve actively briefing UK and US journalists based in Washington on the British response to the attacks, including our contribution to the effort to oust Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts from Afghanistan later that year.

In fact, I spent most of my time trying to reveal as little information as possible to the journalists. There were a few anxious moments in the first few weeks of the war in Afghanistan when it wasn’t clear whether the invasion was going to be successful. But, under orders, I maintained the public line that all was going according to plan. 

I did the same thing two years later, in 2003, when I was embedded in the post-invasion planning unit in the Pentagon for a few short weeks in the run up to the Iraq War.

As one of only two non-Americans in the unit, one of my jobs was to brief allies on the preparations, as a way to encourage them to join the coalition. It’s not news now, but I can confirm from my experience that the planning was shambolic and dysfunctional. 

I reported this with ever increasing urgency to colleagues in the British Embassy – but unfortunately without any impact, because all of the key decisions were being taken directly between Downing Street and the White House. But to US allies, I gave an upbeat, glossy spin on the preparations taking place – something for which I now feel profound guilt. We also now all know the lies that were told about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Extraordinary Rendition

From 2004 to 2006, I was head of the UK’s human rights department in the Foreign Office. It had been my dream job, in which I had hoped to promote human rights around the world. Unfortunately, for much of the time I found myself on the defensive, trying to explain and justify UK and US actions during the so-called 'War on Terror'.

One issue was the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Another was whether the UK was facilitating the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to secret sites around the world, where they might face harsh interrogation tactics, including those endorsed by the infamous Torture Memos drafted by White House lawyers, which justified waterboarding. A third issue was whether the UK was benefiting from intelligence information possibly obtained through torture. 

Human Rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International bombarded MPs and the Foreign Office with questions on these issues and it fell to me to provide the relevant lines for ministers to take. However, I was unable to obtain clear assurances from the Foreign Office’s counter-terrorism policy department to assuage any of the concerns.

The best I could do was draft lines saying 'the British Government does not condone torture' or 'the UK is one of the lead countries campaigning against torture'. Fine words, but they did not answer the questions. They were deliberately evasive.

I ended up being sidelined from terrorism policy discussions because I kept asking awkward questions and pushing for Britain to raise the issue with the US.

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Loyalty Not Lying

I can recall dozens of other incidents when we were similarly disingenuous on behalf of the UK. But perhaps the most egregious example of all was when I was working in the European secretariat of the Cabinet Office from 1995 to 1997.

I was responsible for coordinating European Union policy across Whitehall and steering discussion through Cabinet.

On one occasion, I was asked to write up the minutes of a Cabinet meeting on EU policy and diligently recorded the discussion as accurately as I could. To my dismay, the head of the secretariat was furious with me. “You can’t write that,” he scolded, before informing me that I had to record what they "meant" to say, not what they actually said.

He then rewrote the minutes, with each minister’s contribution ever so slightly nuanced to give it more polish, some comments omitted, and the summary supporting the conclusions the Prime Minister had wanted all along. It was a classic Sir Humphrey moment. 

British diplomats’ mastery of the English language meant we were also able to apply our fabled 'communication skills' in international settings. In numerous UN or EU meetings, it was often the British diplomat who would come up with the vague bon mot or turn of phrase for a joint statement or resolution, which would allow other countries to come on board, even if they actually had a completely opposite point of view.

The goal was to achieve consensus, rather than precision, even if that meant confusion over what had been agreed down the road. We could each brief our capitals with our own interpretation, and deal with any problems later.  

Anyone watching hearings of British ministers or officials before parliamentary committees will have seen the same tactics. The evasive answers, the sly word which distorts a meaning, the half-truth which glosses over a problem, the false promise which does not amount to a genuine commitment. 

Civil servants have been able to convince themselves that this was not lying – we were merely putting the best possible arguments forward on behalf of our government. We were helping to build alliances. We were supporting our ministers and helping to deliver their policies. We were doing our duty as loyal civil servants. 

Now I regret the harm we have done.

Heads Down

While politicians the world over have always been masters of spin, civil servants were supposed to be the guardians of truth and probity. What if more of us had spoken up about the false basis for the Iraq War or questioned the treatment of terrorist detainees? 

Why should we be surprised that we now have a Prime Minister who lies consistently and blatantly about almost everything – when so many civil servants have knowingly connived in his half-truths?

Boris Johnson says he did not know how the redecoration of his Downing Street flat was being funded and that he did not knowingly mislead Parliament over the 'Partygate' scandal. But some of his civil servants must surely knew.

Why haven’t more of them called out his Government’s repeated misrepresentations of the details of Brexit, including the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol? Why aren’t more civil servants objecting to the Government’s plans to renege on the deal, potentially breaching international law?

Why did it take whistleblowers to expose the chaos around the evacuation of Afghanistan? Why did civil servants cover-up the Prime Minister’s role in supporting the evacuation of rescue dogs over people?

These actions cause real harm, incur real costs, and in some cases significant loss of life. 

The uncomfortable truth is that it is not just this Government which lies, though it has taken it to an extraordinary degree of brazenness. And it is not just politicians. As my own shameful experience attests, lying is hard-baked into the British system and enabled by civil servants.

It was after all a British Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, who immortalised the phrase 'being economical with the truth' to justify his misleading comments during the Spycatcher trial in 1986. Anyone willing to replace Lord Geidt as the Prime Minister’s ethics advisor will need to have an extremely flexible understanding of what ethics entail.  

Though telling the truth can be painful, systemic lying corrodes democracy. When ministers tell lies, they insult the intelligence of voters. They undermine trust in our institutions. They degrade the reputation of the UK internationally. When civil servants enable such lies, they are not performing an act of public service but a harmful act of disservice. 

One of the most troubling aspect of events in Britain in recent years is not the behaviour of this Government, but the complicity of the senior Civil Service. We may pretend to ourselves that we are not lying, but it is no wonder that for many, we are indeed 'perfidious Albion'.

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

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Cartoon: The guilty party

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/06/2022 - 9:50pm in

Support these comics by joining the Sorensen Subscription Service! Also on Patreon.

Priti Patel’s immigration policy – back to the future

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/06/2022 - 6:49am in

This is spot on: Even her constituency has been subject to the blue plaque treatment…... Read more

‘Carriegate’: How the Prime Minister and his Hacks Scratch Each Others’ Backs

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 20/06/2022 - 9:08pm in

The mystery of a disappearing story about Boris Johnson’s wife once again confirms the merger between the political and media classes distorting British democracy, says Hardeep Matharu

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Another scandal hit the headlines this weekend – or did it?

The ‘Carriegate’ affair was the story that apparently wasn’t. 

The revelation by The Times that Boris Johnson wanted to appoint his then mistress Carrie Symonds to a £100,000-a-year role as chief of staff when he was Foreign Secretary was quite the scoop.

Published in the early editions of its Saturday newspaper, the story by Simon Walters built on claims that first surfaced in Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft’s biography of the Prime Minister’s now wife – but corroborated these with three other sources. MailOnline followed suit and published an article based on The Times piece. But then the story vanished.

It was not printed in later editions of The Times or on its website and the MailOnline article also disappeared. No explanation of where it had gone was forthcoming from either publisher, while Walters told the New European that he stood by the story. A spokesperson for Carrie Johnson then told the Guardian that the claims had been “totally untrue” – but this didn’t explain why an on-the-record denial had not been provided to Walters ahead of publication when he asked for it.

The exact details of what happened may remain a mystery (although a Downing Street spokesman has suggested to Byline Times’ political editor that it did speak to The Times in between it publishing the story and taking it down) but the symbiotic relationship of Boris Johnson and the most influential press barons in the country does not. 

As Brian Cathcart has repeatedly observed in these pages, in recent years, Britain has seen the culmination of a merger between its political and media classes.

Spearheading the Vote Leave ‘revolution’, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – rumoured to be considering taking on the editorship of The Times according to Byline Times diarist Peter Oborne – are the journalist-politicians who were propelled to power in no small part due to the support of their friends in the right-wing press.

Having made it all the way to Downing Street, all of their social and professional connections in the media have paid off. In turn, they have paid for this loyalty generously. 

Dominic Cummings recently confirmed just one example.

Tweeting that Johnson had personally negotiated “COVID bungs” for struggling newspaper titles during the pandemic – which he said were later dressed up as “subsidies” – the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor exposed a story Byline Times had reported two years previously. With zero interest by anyone in the established media. 

Despite this newspaper’s attempts to find out, we still don’t know how many millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was handed to the newspapers. What we do know is that the same newspapers that received the money have been largely sympathetic to an administration that has been mired in unparalleled levels of scandal and corruption in modern British political history.

It begs the question: do we have a free press or a paid for press?

In the wake of Cummings’ tweets, I contacted the editor of a reputable online publication not usually seen as part of the ‘mainstream’ circle of titles, to place an article on why the rest of the media had stayed silent on Johnson’s bungs for billionaire press barons and how such a close relationship between the media and the press remains dangerous for our democracy. I received no reply.

But the ‘Partygate’ scandal of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street has shown that the press can hold power to account – when it chooses to. While ITV News and the Mirror led this reporting, the subsequent inquiries and the ramifications for Johnson’s Government with the public meant it could not simply be ignored by the right-wing titles or broadcasters such as the BBC. But Partygate wasn’t the first, or arguably the most egregious, of this administration’s scandals.

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Whether it’s the economic costs of Britain’s hard Brexit; the Government’s ‘herd immunity’ approach in the early days of the Coronavirus crisis; Russian interference in the UK; or the oligarchical cronyism on display around donations, contracts and access – so many big issues are not being properly exposed by influential elements of the established press because it’s not in the Government’s interests for it to do so. The Government’s interests are these newspapers’ interests. Even as they claim that everything they do is driven by the public interest and, in the name of press freedom, they go completely unscrutinised.

What Carriegate has merely confirmed is the huge amount of influence wielded by these newspapers as to what we, as citizens, do and do not find out about our Government. 

And when they decide that keeping the Prime Minister in power is no longer mutually beneficial for them, he will be dispatched. Whether through a fresh scandal they have been holding back for the occasion or because his daily failures of leadership reach an endpoint with the public. And Johnson will accept it.

For, as Carriegate has shown: scratching each others’ backs is a normal day at the office for the Prime Minister and his hacks.

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The ‘independent’ BoE is not so independent after all

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/06/2022 - 7:07am in

The Bank of England (BoE) is effectively tasked with a function that it cannot possibly fulfill.. That is controlling inflation… Changing interest rates – which is their only ‘tool’ – has, in my view, nothing to do with inflation, unless they wish to increase it… The system would work only if you wished to prevent... Read more

Billionaires B*tch

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/06/2022 - 4:45am in

This is a contribution on Double Down News, from ex Mail journalist, Peter Oborne, who used to work for Johnson. The piece does, I fear, emphasise many of the governmental problems already highlighted in these pages, but he is able to point out, as himself an old-fashioned Conservative, how his party has been transformed –... Read more

The tears of the world are a constant quantity…

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/06/2022 - 4:24am in

…..Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. These memorable words are from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and are not, I suggest, true – they are after all, given to Pozzo, who to me is a sort of controlling self-satisfied capitalist who, lest we forget,... Read more

Government Refusing to Declare Boris Johnson’s Meetings at Height of First COVID Wave

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/06/2022 - 8:29pm in

The Cabinet Office is withholding information about the Prime Minister’s meetings over a crucial 43-day period, Sascha Lavin reports

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The Cabinet Office is refusing to declare the external meetings that Boris Johnson held during a 43-day period at the start of the pandemic, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal. 

The Cabinet Office denied a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, that asked for a list of all the meetings held by the Prime Minister with external individuals between 19 March and 1 May 2020. Instead, this paper was accused of making a “vexatious” request. 

Currently, no meetings are listed by the Government as having taken place between Johnson and external figures or businesses during this period. The Byline Intelligence Team understands that Government departments are not required to declare meetings held over the phone – a major transparency loophole that opened up during the pandemic, when in-person events were banned.

This comes as Johnson rewrote the Ministerial Code last month to remove all references in the foreword to transparency, honesty, integrity and accountability. Since entering Number 10, Johnson and his Government have faced a barrage of criticism for avoiding scrutiny – from dodging questions surrounding ‘Partygate’ to relying on a Cabinet Office unit to block information releases. 

The Cabinet Office claims that our FOI request to share a list of the Prime Minister’s meetings was “‘fishing’ for information” and required “a burdensome and disproportionate amount of resources”.

Working From Home?

The Prime Minister tested positive for COVID-19 on 27 March 2020 and, following a stint in intensive care, officially returned to work a month later, apologising for being “away from my desk for much longer than I would have liked.”

On 27 March, Johnson posted a video on Twitter in which he said that he had tested positive for Coronavirus and would be self-isolating but assured viewers, “we’re working clearly the whole time on our programme to beat the virus.”

Nine days later, Johnson’s Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that the Prime Minister was “working away” and had his “hand on the tiller.”

Confusingly, on 6 April, three hours before Johnson was admitted to an intensive care unit, the then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, promised that the Prime Minister “still remains in charge of the Government” from his hospital bed. 

Yet, the Cabinet Office has not published any meetings held between the Prime Minister and external individuals and organisations during this period and refuses to confirm whether Johnson held any any meetings at all.

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Even if – contrary to his ministers’ comments – Johnson was in fact unable to work during the entire month that he was suffering from COVID, there are still 18 days during which Johnson appears to have held no meetings with external individuals and organisations, according to the Cabinet Office’s publicly available transparency documents.

The publications, released in July and October 2020, have not recorded a single meeting between Johnson and external parties during the 43-day period from 19 March 2020. This was at the height of the Government’s response to the first wave of the virus – with Johnson announcing the country’s first lockdown on 23 March. For comparison, the then Health Minister Lord James Bethell held 93 meetings with external individuals and organisations during the same time period. 

However, because the Cabinet Office refused to share a list of the Prime Minister’s meetings between 19 March and 1 May 2020, it is not known whether the Prime Minister held no external meetings for 43 days at this crucial point in the pandemic, or if, in fact, the Cabinet Office has failed to publish the external meetings that were held.

Byline Times previously revealed that 27 meetings held in April 2020 with companies that went on to win £1.14 billion in Government contracts were omitted from the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) original records.

This paper also uncovered a meeting between technology firms and Hancock at the outset of the pandemic that the DHSC failed to declare for 21 months. 

If Johnson did hold meetings with external parties, the Cabinet Office would already be 19 months late in declaring them.

Byline Times has asked the Cabinet Office to review its decision about withholding information about the Prime Minister’s meetings at the start of the pandemic. This newspaper will report back with further developments.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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Labour needs to reset the paradigm

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/06/2022 - 5:52am in

Following a conversation with left leaning friends (hopefully they are even more left leaning now!) it seems to me that Labour have to recognise that a Starmer government repeating New Labour’s idea of managing neoliberalism rather better than the Tories is not enough (and even Gordon Brown seems to accept this now, which must be... Read more

Boris Johnson Considers Axing Ethics Advisor Role After Lord Geidt Quits

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/06/2022 - 12:05am in

The Prime Minister’s unethical conduct has forced a long list of his appointees to resign. Now he is considering scrapping the role overseeing his conduct, reports Adam Bienkov

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Boris Johnson’s ethics advisor Lord Christopher Geidt is the latest in a long list of people who have felt forced to resign because of the Prime Minister's unethical or unlawful conduct.

In his resignation letter, Geidt said that Johnson had asked him to approve “a deliberate and purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code”, which placed him in an “impossible and odious position”.

The details of this alleged breach are not clear. Multiple reports suggest that it relates to a potential breach of international trade rules concerning the UK steel industry. A spokesman for Johnson denied that it was connected to the personal interests of the Prime Minister and there is no available evidence to suggest otherwise.

However, it is worth saying that companies and individuals within the steel industry have collectively donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative Party in recent years.

These donors include the steel manufacturers Offshore Group Newcastle Limited, which has donated close to half a million pounds to the party since 2015, and the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who donated both to the party and directly to Johnson's leadership campaign in 2019.

Geidt’s departure follows that of his predecessor, Sir Alex Allen, who also resigned as Johnson's ethics advisor in 2020 after the Prime Minister ignored his finding that Home Secretary Priti Patel had broken the Ministerial Code.

Other officials to have quit during Johnson’s premiership have included Lord Richard Keen, who resigned as the Advocate General for Scotland in 2020 because he believed that the Government’s Brexit plans broke international law, and Sir Jonathan Jones who resigned as the Head of the Government Legal Service over the same issue.

Justice Minister David Wolfson also resigned over the ‘Partygate’ scandal, as did Johnson’s anti-corruption tsar John Penrose, who resigned earlier this month.

Such a long list of resignations over the issue of ethical standards may have worried other governments, or other prime ministers, but not this one.

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On the contrary, a spokesman for Johnson today said that they would instead be considering whether to scrap Geidt’s role.

The spokesman said that the functions of the independent advisor on ministerial interests could instead be carried out by other government bodies and departments.

“We have not made a final decision on how best to carry out that function, whether it relates to a specific individual or not,” he said, before adding that the Prime Minister “will carefully consider that before setting out next steps.”

Johnson’s refusal to step down as Prime Minister, despite losing the confidence of more than 40% of his own MPs, suggests that questions of ethical conduct do not much concern his Government.

However, the timing of Geidt's resignation has benefited the Prime Minister.

Had Geidt’s resignation come before the Conservative Party’s vote of confidence in Johnson last week – as he was reportedly considering – then it is possible that the Prime Minister would have been forced out by his own party.

As it is, he looks set to remain in Downing Street.

This will remain the case up until Conservative MPs finally conclude that they can no longer consent to a man, with the sort of ethical standards that Johnson has so clearly demonstrated, remaining in office.

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