After the dizzying chaos of the Liz Truss interregnum last autumn, our politics entered a period of relative calm. Squalls and squabbles (and the odd ministerial resignation) continued, but there was an overall sense that life in Westminster and Whitehall had settled down.
Well, the past few days have seen a return to the frenetic pace of last year. From Rishi Sunak securing a new Brexit deal to Boris Johnson swiftly trashing it, from the mass leak of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApps to the ambulance unions calling off their strike, it’s been all go in SW1.
Within hours of learning that former civil service ethics chief Sue Gray was being hired by Keir Starmer, with the huge Tory backlash that followed, the Privileges Committee unleashed an evidence dump of its own findings into Johnson’s alleged lies to Parliament over Partygate.
Although the Committee was quick to point out that it had taken its own evidence, which did not rely on Gray’s own report, that hasn’t stopped Conservative MPs from questioning both inquiries as indelibly tainted by her decision to become Starmer’s chief of staff.
There is certainly an unease among some in the civil service about Gray’s switch, and the risk to their cherished impartiality. While there’s no serious suggestion the former Whitehall chief was anything other than professional, she’ll be aware that it’s not just impropriety, but the perception of impropriety that is at the heart of our codes of conduct covering ministers and officials.
The failure to grasp that perception feels like an own goal on Labour’s part. The great irony is that if Cabinet Secretary Simon Case hadn’t had to recuse himself from the Partygate investigation, Gray would never have been drafted in at all. Her move to Labour – with an approved quarantine period – would have been intriguing but not so controversial.
While Tory MPs may get their wish in seeing a long delay in Gray’s appointment, the Privileges Committee’s new findings are a stark reminder to the public that the PM of this country oversaw a culture in No 10 of lockdown rule-breaking. Dragging up those painful memories, with the added charge that Johnson lied about it all, can’t be good for the Tory party overall.
But away from Partygate, Johnson also presided over a period of worrying politicisation of a different kind. His reign saw a spike in the politicisation of the appointment to public bodies by people who had links to, and even made donations to, the Tory party.
The appointment of Richard Sharp as BBC chairman is perhaps the most high profile example. The new head of Ofcom is also a Tory peer, Lord Grade, and the head of the Charity Commission is a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate, Orlando Fraser.
There’s more. The chair of the Office for Students is Lord Wharton, Tory peer and former manager of Johnson’s leadership campaign. Some in the civil service were less worried about Matt Hancock snogging his adviser Gina Coladangelo than the fact that he appointed her as a non-executive director in the Department of Health.
To make matters worse, when an investigation was launched into Sharp’s appointment (sparked by his role in securing an £800,000 loan for Johnson), the man in charge of that investigation, William Shawcross, had to later step aside because of his personal links to the new BBC chairman.
Shawcross, who is the Public Appointments Commissioner, is supposed to be the watchdog who regulates this whole area. It’s pretty astounding that it took him a whole week to work out that he had to step aside because of possible conflicts of interest.
When Shawcross (whose daughter heads up Sunak’s policy unit) was appointed, he tried to reassure critics that he would “not be doing deals around the dinner table”.
There is a wider concern, however, at the way ministers have become much more involved in public appointments over recent years. In fact, David Cameron institutionalised greater political input when he reformed the system in 2016 on the recommendation of businessman Gerry Grimstone (who was, wait for it, made a Tory peer and minister, in 2020).
The Grimstone reforms have been heavily criticised by former Public Appointments Commissioner David Normington, because they gave the Government the power to write their “own appointments rules, appoint the advisory panels, intervene at every stage to get their candidates appointed, ignore the panels’ advice, and appoint their friends and cronies”.
Cameron claimed he’d brought in the reforms as a reaction to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown having packed their own supporters into public bodies over previous years, complaining that he was too often “served up New Labour people” for appointment when he took office in 2010.
In 2016, Normington recalled one occasion when none of the five applicants deemed suitable by ministers for an important public job had been put through for interview, because others were better qualified. Four of the five had substantial connections to the Tory party and “there was, needless to say, a very unhappy Secretary of State as a result and quite an argument about it”, he said.
What’s unarguable is that the system now relies more on the self-restraint of Prime Ministers and ministers – and as we all know self-restraint was not Johnson’s forte. Although not everyone goes as far as Normington in their criticism, there is undoubtedly a case for fresh safeguards to avoid the cronies charge.
The choice of those who appoint the appointees is another area of concern. Another former Commissioner, Peter Riddell, has raised worries about government attempts to appoint “people with clear party affiliations”, senior independent panel members and to pack assessment panels with political allies.
The Institute for Government published an excellent report into the system last year, revealing that special advisers or Tory party officials had helped block certain candidates for public appointments at a late stage with no right of reply. The number of exceptional appointments made without competition rose from just over 20 in 2017 to over 50 in 2021, it pointed out.
“Political affiliation appears to play the greatest role among the most senior appointments. Of the nine new chairs declaring political activity in 2020/21, eight were Conservatives,” the report said. These high profile cases undermined confidence in the rest of the system, despite there being less evidence of politicisation being embedded in a broader sense.
While accepting that public appointees need to have the confidence of ministers, the IfG report recommended new regulation of all ministerial appointments, new limits on ministerial decision-making in the process, better data on delays in the system and the removal of ministers’ ability to appoint a candidate judged unappointable by an assessment panel.
They’re all sensible suggestions, but despite a few warm words, so far none have been implemented by the Government. If Sunak really wanted to follow through on his defining mission to inject more “integrity, professionalism and accountability” into Whitehall, this would be a perfect way to prove it.
There’s a difficult balance to strike. Party political affiliation can’t be a bar to public office, but neither should it be a qualification either. The key should be finding the highest quality of candidate and drawing from as wide a pool as possible.
That’s why, aside from the “ministers appointing their mates” concerns, we should be concerned that a small number of applicants for public posts come from outside London and the South East. Initiatives like the “boardroom apprentice” scheme, to get more people used to the boards of public bodies, are a great start.
Sue Gray backed that very scheme when she and William Shawcross happened to be at an IfG event setting out the need for reform last November – before either of them sparked their recent controversies.
And the need for change affects all parties. It was Shawcross’s father Hartley Shawcross, the great Nuremberg trial lawyer then Labour minister, who famously said when he was part of the Attlee government of 1945, “we are the masters now”. It was a remark he later bitterly regretted.
The public would benefit from better safeguards against the politicisation of the public appointments process. But the party leaders could enhance their own reputations if they treated it seriously too, rather than playing a political game of Buggins’ turn that rewards their own supporters with every change of Government.
Paul Waugh is i‘s chief political commentator