If you seek proof of the malaise in British public life, the saga of a Conservative donor who helped facilitate a personal loan for the prime minister being appointed BBC chair, will do nicely. This is the kind of thing the UK rails against when it happens abroad.
Yet while Richard Sharp’s middleman role, details of which he failed to disclose during the selection process, has placed a question mark over his future, it also highlights a bigger issue. It shows the consequences of narrowing the talent pool for public jobs to the level where it numbers those close enough to Boris Johnson to worry about his wealth.
Patronage has always run thick through the veins of the British body politic. Astonishingly, the BBC job often goes to a political partisan. For Sharp; Goldman Sachs alumnus, party donor with close ties to both Johnson and Rishi Sunak, read Gavyn Davies; Goldman Sachs alumnus, Labour party donor with close personal links to Gordon Brown and BBC chair under Tony Blair.
The Blair and Cameron governments faced furores over “Tony’s cronies” and “Dave’s faves”. Blair’s patronage was sometimes shocking. He made his unelected former flatmate solicitor general, while Labour’s chief donor, David Sainsbury, was ennobled and appointed science minister. (The latter was widely praised, but he enjoyed a freedom and influence granted to few other ministers). All governments seek sympathetic figures for public jobs and Sharp was approved by the formal vetting processes. So surely Johnson and Sunak are merely a step further down a well-trodden path.
There are, however, four key differences. First, Johnson was readier to breach rules and norms. So far, ministers have not overruled the independent commissioner who must approve public appointments, but Johnson did insist on a rerun when his first choice for one job was rejected and tried to pack at least one selection panel. Johnson also defied watchdogs to give peerages to two close allies.
Second; post-Brexit, the candidate pool for major jobs was deliberately narrowed to the Leave establishment and Tory friends. This aligned with the third and fourth factors — the use of appointments to fight back against a perceived liberal dominance of major institutions and to curb the power of unelected regulators and officials.
The result is not just a Tory donor as BBC chair, but a Tory peer chosen to head the communications regulator, Ofcom, and the man who ran Johnson’s first leadership campaign appointed as head of the Office for Students. Gisela Stuart, the most prominent Labour leaver, is now the first civil service commissioner — her key role is in safeguarding Whitehall’s appointments processes. Some of these candidates are well-qualified; others not so much.
Previous searches for “dependable” candidates fished in the wider establishment sea of the “great and good”. Many will argue this field was too prone to economic or liberal groupthink, but it left ministers less reliant on party members or allies. The Tories, though, see two establishments, one Leave and one Remain, and only the former is to be mined. Exceptions are made, but they are just that. Brexit correctness has hollowed out the talent pool for important roles.
The former public appointments commissioner, Peter Riddell, has already voiced concerns. “Just as political activity should not be a bar to appointment, so it should not be a qualification.” He also regretted how Tory aides trawled social media, blackballing candidates for pro-Remain tweets, regardless of their relevance to the post. Downing Street tried to prevent Mary Beard, the eminent classicist, from becoming a trustee of the British Museum because of her opposition to Brexit. Riddell’s successor as regulator, incidentally, is the Brexit-backing William Shawcross, whose daughter, Eleanor, heads Sunak’s policy unit and who has had to recuse himself from a new probe into Sharp. There is no suggestion of impropriety here but it highlights the ever decreasing circles of selection.
Johnson may now be gone but others who were part of this process remain. And once conventions are stretched, the elastic rarely returns to its original resting point. Few would quarrel with the principle of political primacy. But this relies on ministers’ power to an extent they would not accept in opposition.
The saga signals the further erosion of a system built on the codification of values rather than rules. The irony is that weakening conventions and constraints on ministerial power will inevitably lead, as they have before, to tighter rules and stronger watchdogs.
And there is a glaring gap in all this; parliamentary oversight. For when governments talk of restoring political sovereignty they invariably mean executive primacy. A recent report by the Institute for Government suggests new safeguards, including requiring parliamentary sanction to override the appointments commissioner and giving select committees the veto power over especially sensitive constitutional jobs. Committees will often hold hearings but hardly any can block an appointment.
One needs only look to the US to see the risks in this but select committees have generally shown they can rise to the task. With erosion of shared values, the only solution is stronger safeguards. Better for those powers to reside in parliament than with the executive.
It is right that ministers look beyond London or traditional elites. Yet those who preached about more broadly representative state institutions have ended up restricting democratically important jobs to the tightest clique of all.