The head of the civil service refused to say whether he has spoken to the Prime Minister about allegations he tried to procure a Government job for his now wife.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case appeared before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday, where he said he did not have the power to initiate an investigation into allegations Boris Johnson tried to hire Carrie Symonds, as she then was, as his £100,000-a-year chief of staff when he was foreign secretary in 2018.
Under questioning from Labour MP John McDonnell, Mr Case said he had no knowledge of the allegations, while director general of propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office, Darren Tierney, said he was not in the role at the time and could not comment.
Mr Case said the matter had not been investigated, to incredulity from the veteran MP.
“This is where we get into the processes that exist. An investigation under the ministerial code, under the current rubric, can only be authorised by the Prime Minister,” Mr Case told him.
Committee chairman William Wragg asked Mr Case if the Prime Minister was not “keen” on authorising an investigation.
“These are questions that obviously need to be directed to the Prime Minister,” Mr Case replied.
Mr McDonnell’s questioning led to a robust exchange between the pair, as he asked the top civil servant if he had discussed the matter with Mr Johnson and why there was not an investigation into it.
“I do not have an independent right of initiation of investigations,” Mr Case responded.
Mr McDonnell asked him: “Haven’t you any responsibility, as one of the most senior civil servants in Government, to uphold standards at all?”
Mr Case said: “I am very aware of my responsibilities under the civil service code and I take them very seriously.”
Pressed again, with Mr McDonnell suggesting Mr Case had in fact discussed the matter with Mr Johnson, Mr Case was firm, saying: “I have said I am not commenting on my private conversations with the Prime Minister.”
Mr McDonnell did elicit a laugh from the Cabinet Secretary when he told him: “We all have a cross to bear.”
Downing Street has previously said Mr Johnson never recommended Mrs Johnson for a Government role.
The committee earlier heard that a decision on the recruitment process for the replacement for Lord Geidt has not yet been made.
Downing Street also said there was no update on the process, while arguing it was “right to take time to carefully consider how best to fulfil the role”.
A No 10 spokesman said: “We’re aware of the issues that Lord Geidt himself raised, as did Pacac with regard to that role, and the PM continues to try to take time to look at those issues carefully before any final decision’s made, but to emphasise that we remain fully committed to making sure all ministers – including the Prime Minister – are held to account for maintaining high standards.”
The committee was also told by Mr Case that Boris Johnson’s former ministerial interests adviser was not asked for his opinion on the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill before he quit.
The appearance comes in the shadow of the partygate controversy, as well as the decision of a row over steel tariffs and international trade rules seen as the final straw for Mr Johnson’s ethics adviser.
Simon Case told the committee on Tuesday that “(Ministerial) Code issues didn’t arise” in the case of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, unlike in the case of the possible breach of World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules that triggered Lord Geidt’s resignation as independent adviser on the ministerial code.
Mr Case added: “The code in the end wasn’t in question so there was no reason, I don’t think anyway, I don’t believe Lord Geidt was consulted about the protocol.”
He declined to speculate on whether Lord Geidt had used the WTO issue, believed to relate to protections for the steel industry, as “an excuse” to quit.
Mr Tierney said the decision to consult Lord Geidt on the possible WTO breach was taken by the Prime Minister.
Mr Case began his highly anticipated appearance at the committee by talking about the “tension” or “juxtaposition” that can exist in the Civil Service Code.
He described the juxtaposition, saying: “The duty to support the government of the day to the best of your ability and upholding the values can create challenges”.
He stressed it is not a “permanent conflict”.
He went on: “The government of the day is one that is not remotely afraid of controversial policies. It believes it has a mandate to test established boundaries.
“It takes a robust view of the national interest and how the Government should protect it and focuses very much on accountability to people and Parliament, not on the unelected advisory structures.”
Asked about the recruitment process for Lord Geidt, it was put to him that he helped “twist the arm” of the former adviser.
“Did I twist his arm? It is for Lord Geidt to characterise, but I don’t think that’s right.”
He also acknowledged that it is now a much more “public role than it has been before”.