Paul Dacre (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Blob ONE, Number Ten NONE

Our overtaken by events December leader

The leader for our December/January 2022 issue has been scooped by Paul Dacre withdrawing from the application process to become the next chair of Ofcom.

Once British imperial ambition coloured the map of the globe pink. Now it must surely be largely green with envy, as there are so many things in Britain for the rest of the world to covet: our judges, our police, our BBC, our NHS, of course, and perhaps most impressively of all, our civil service.

While the Westminster model might have fallen into rancid partisanship across the Anglosphere, Whitehall has not yet let us down. Northcote Trevelyan still rules. Where other public bureaucracies suffer from corruption, inefficiency, politics and patronage, we enjoy all the benefits of loyal, effective, disinterested civil servants, promoted on merit.

We know this is so because they tell us. Every living former cabinet secretary wrote to The Times last month with a clever solution to the problem of “public confidence in the integrity of our public life”. The answer, they say, is more regulation, more public bodies — and more public officials:

Put the key standards bodies, in particular the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, on to a statutory basis. We also need a strengthened regulator, established on a statutory basis, to police clearer rules for those moving between the public and private sectors

The skittering career of Lex Greensill CBE across Whitehall, courtesy of the late Jeremy Heywood, wasn’t directly touched upon. But this ecclesia of Sir Humphreys was “mindful of the legal constraints on restricting the ability to find employment”. Even if more might be done to keep cuckoos from the Whitehall nest, it would be a sorry loss for corporate boards and the better class of quango if the rara aves of the mandarinate couldn’t flutter over to them in retirement.

In 1997, the electorate almost wiped out the world’s most successful democratic political party under Major shabby leadership

Much of this moral indignation was provoked by the Government trying to alter the last set of reforms to standards in parliament. When ministers suggested the system might not be perfect, right thinking people rushed to the defence of Kathryn Stone OBE. Since Speaker Bercow’s time, she has been Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and was previously, to their obvious advantage, Commissioner for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland, a commissioner for the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and Legal Ombudsman. 

Sir John Major KG called the government’s behaviour, “shameful, wrong and unworthy”. Since Sir John, like Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, has sadly declined a peerage, and all the disclosure that goes with a seat in the Lords, we’re unable to know what standards he has kept since No 10, or how much he was paid for them. Readers with long memories will, however, recall what the public thought of the standards over which Mr Major presided. In 1997, the electorate almost wiped out the world’s most successful democratic political party under his shabby leadership.

The former premier’s claim for his own time in office was that he started the “Nolanification” of British public life. Which, as we know from the former cabinet secretaries, has been a failure only inasmuch as it hasn’t yet gone further and harder.

An example of Nolanified Britain in action can be seen with the Government’s attempts to appoint Paul Dacre, the ex Daily Mail editor, chairman of Ofcom. This gift turned out not to be their’s to offer and was frustrated by the unknown hands who failed his application.

We should note who stopped the elected government from appointing the person it wanted to a job nominally in its gift

Mr Dacre, demonstrably, lacked the application of previous Ofcom chairs such as Lord Burns, GCB (ex Treasury permanent secretary, subsequently chairman of Abbey National, Marks and Spencer, and Channel 4, current senior adviser to Santander UK). Or of Dame Colette Bowe, DBE, who, after the civil service, has also chaired Electra Private Equity, the Council of Queen Mary University, Ombudsman Services, the Banking Standards Board and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, and served on the boards of Thames Water Utilities, London and Continental Railways, Axa IM, Morgan Stanley, the Yorkshire Building Society, the Department for Transport, and, the UK Statistics Authority (though this list does not pretend to UKSA style precision). 

We can laugh at the obviousness of who is suitable for permanent, quasi public life in Britain, and who is not, but we should note who stopped the elected government from appointing the person it wanted to a job nominally in its gift. We can’t note who they are — that’s not done — but we can note how they stop the wrong people: behind the scenes. 

When these cabinet secretaries were tasked by the PMs they served with ad hoc “inquiries” and “investigations”, none of them reported in a way that discomfited their then masters. This, in its own way, was courageous, given the snide imputations that could so easily be made of such convenient behaviour. Likewise, why Mr Dacre failed where others passed is a process daylight should not be let in on. Some things just have to be done in the dark by the right people.

Many will question MPs’ second jobs: it would be a great thing if more of them could do their first job by ensuring the governments that the people choose, choose the people they — rather than the Sir Humphreys — want.

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