Like departments of state, the civil service and political parties, British journalism has its own culture – overwhelmingly centred in London. One of the products of its herd mentality is the pack sport of “Get the Minister”.
The Greensill collapse and its wider fall-out offer the tempting targets of Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock, plus Simone Finn and Henry Newman (respectively Downing Street’s Deputy Chief of Staff and a senior special adviser), and ex-Ministers, such as Francis Maude and, of course, David Cameron.
You want inquiries? We’ve got them. As the London Playbook newsletter points out, there may be as many as six: the Boardman review, inquiries by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committe, the Treasury Select Committee, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life – with three more select committees in the mix too.
As conservatives as well as Conservatives, we appreciate that “Get the Minister” is one of the great traditional games of British public life, and we would never wish to curb or blunt it. But the essence of the Greensill story seems to be: Cameron lobbies; Sunak asks civil servants to double-check; they say no; no favours are done (copyright: Michael Fabricant).
This being so, the pack’s next hunting-ground is the past – the Coalition years. One point is clear already: namely, that none of these inquiries will do their duty, and the pack will miss an important quarry, if it goes view-hallooing after politicians past and present, while the civil service fox slips out of its hole and vanishes into the distance.
We can all agree that accountability is integral to the whole story. But it is a feature of the way our political system works that the people we elect are not always in charge – the most spectacular example being the honours system, which sees the time-honoured trade off between relatively low civil service pay and a relatively high proportion of honours.
Talking of which: second jobs are not unknown in public service (ask the police), but how on earth was Bill Crothers, the civil service head of Whitehall procurement, allowed also to act as as part-time adviser to Greensill? Did Sir John Manzoni, the civil servant believed to have signed off on Crothers’ position, also have a second job in the private sector?
Why does the Cabinet Office not seem to know how many senior civil servants are in a similar position? And how long has the practice been going on for? Crothers’ appointment was made five years ago. Is the practice, say, ten years old? Longer? Does it run back from the Coalition into the Labour years?
When acting as an adviser to the Coalition Government, Greensill wasn’t a civil servant – and doesn’t appear to have been formally appointed, either. So which Minister was he accountable to? If the answer is David Cameron, was the Prime Minister really in charge, or had Jeremy Heywood, to borrow the Vote Leave slogan, “taken back control”?
The answers to these questions are unknown, but it’s not hard to see where these events are heading. First, there will be a crackdown on the commercial activities of former Prime Ministers (on which point: we’ve heard during recent days from John Major and Gordon Brown. Where’s Tony Blair?)
Next, there will be a tightening-up of lobbying laws. As Francis Ingham wrote on this site recently, “the patent absurdity of a Lobbying Act which excludes the majority of lobbyists means that it simply will not last”. He added that if the TUC or CBI hire a public affairs agency to lobby Ministers, it must be disclosed, but if they do so themselves, it doesn’t.
In doing so, he was swivelling a searchlight on an important point: lobbying isn’t only done by those who hope to make a profit from it; it’s also carried out by those whose aims will carry a cost to the taxpayer, but won’t necessarily provide value for money. This takes us to the Taxpayers’ Alliance recent research.
It published last year a list of publicly-funded bodies that also campaign politically. Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether these should therefore be funded at all, and ask: shouldn’t their lobbying activities be as stringently recorded, if they do it themselves, as these would be were they to hire professional lobbyists?
By the way, why does a register, in itself, halt what Cameron now notoriously called “the lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way”? If you believe that such special access is inherently wrong, how does a list of meetings right it?
And if meetings with Ministers should be recorded, why not those with MPs? After all, they have the last word on legislation, whether they carry a Red Box or not. Let’s add all those who meet them other than socially to that swelling register – except, of course, those who seek to hold them to account.
But hang on a moment: media outlets sometimes campaign politically. What Fleet Street organ doesn’t proudly boast of doing so on behalf of its readers? Nor is the practice confined to the capital: see this list from the Press Gazette five years ago of “32 local newspaper campaigns which have made a difference”. There will be many more since.
Yes: let’s declare every contact made with a Minister by any journalist working on a media campaign – from the mightiest editor of the greatest broadsheets in the land to the puniest minion on the most obscure blog. And – since you ask – ConHome must be swept up in this grand legislative trawl: as the saying has it, we’ll show us ours if you show us yours.
You think we’re not taking the Greensill saga seriously? On the contrary. We are demonstrating where this trail of events is likely to end up: with Ministers slapped lightly on the wrists (if at all); a tightening-up of civil service rules, perhaps with holes in it; and one on former Prime Ministers, without any – or with fewer.
And with new lobbying rules or laws which, in the nature of things, won’t stop “the quiet word in your ear” – because life is full of them. So it is now, ever shall be and, for all we know, was in the beginning. How to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to have such a word is part of the great, toiling, never-ending story of democracy.
Boris Johnson should be on his guard. The clamour for more laws and rules is inherently frustrating. But it could also frustrate him. His relaxed attitude to bureaucratic formalities is part of his peculiar appeal. And Labour’s attempt to whip up a sleaze scandal comparable to that of the 1990s is out of kilter with the electoral cycle.
Nonetheless, the public mood can suddenly change. The Prime Minister will want to ensure that he has done his declaration homework on time, registered all his interests properly and, if we really to have the Sir Alex Allans of this world, ensure that they are promptly replaced.
One thing is certain: better politics won’t be achieved by ever-more stringent reporting requirements – a meal that always leaves those fed clamouring for even more. And which will only speed the Sue-Grayification of British politics. As for Cameron, all we can add is to quote Jethro Tull: he was too old to rock and roll, but he was too young to die.