The truth is out there

Henry Staunton is dismissed as dangerously “erratic” by the powers that be, but he may just be telling the truth, no matter how weird


How is it possible for the Post Office to seem in even more of a mess this week than it did last week? How can we not have reached Peak Mess yet? And on a not-unrelated note, what’s Kemi Badenoch up to at the moment?

The Business Select Committee’s hearing on Tuesday morning broke down into essentially two phases: intense, and then insane. The first four hours were a mix of detail from people in suits, assuring us that everything that possibly could be done was being done, and much faster than it looked, and testimony from wronged postmasters with more tales of how horribly they had been treated. These stories get no less shocking the more familiar they become: the suddenly missing sums, the threats, the desperate attempts to pay, the lives collapsing in on themselves in the face of implacable bureaucracy.

The star witness of the morning was Alan “Mr” Bates, he of the TV series, who possesses a quiet charisma. He was dismissive of claims that the organisation that had ruined so many lives was capable of change. “Over the years I’ve been dealing with the Post Office,” he said, “the culture has always been the Post Office. It will not change and you cannot change it.”

We waited, curious to see whether he would drop his trousers or announce that the Archbishop of Canterbury was really a lizard-man

His solution? “Sell it to someone like Amazon for a pound.” We laughed. Who could blame him for his attitude, but of course we knew it wasn’t a serious suggestion. Our minds would change about that in the coming hours.

The big name we were expecting in the afternoon was Henry Staunton, the company’s chairman, sacked by Badenoch a few weeks ago in circumstances that are disputed. She had since revealed to MPs that he had been the subject of a misconduct investigation, following “very serious allegations” from a whistleblower. And over the course of Tuesday morning, his name had been trashed by more than one witness.

Tory MP Jonathan Gullis, interrogating an official from Badenoch’s department, seemed especially well-armed with questions that might make life tricky for Staunton. Had other members of the Post Office board said they might resign if the chairman wasn’t sacked, he enquired. Why yes, came the replay, as a matter of fact they had. Yes, there had been complaints about his conduct. Later a Post Office official said Staunton’s behaviour had been “somewhat erratic” in recent months. The chief executive, Nick Read, said no one in government had ever told him to slow down compensation payments. Presumably the Post Office was simply being obstructive by default.

All in all, as we waited for Staunton to take his place, things looked pretty bleak for him, and pretty good for Badenoch. Reckless in firing the chairman? The man was clearly unhinged. It was a surprise she’d been as patient as she had.

Before he sat down Staunton, like the other Post Office bosses, had been put on oath. It tells you something about where we’ve got to that their word wasn’t considered good enough.

Still, he didn’t seem very erratic. He looked like what he was: an accountant with decades of experience. We waited, curious to see whether he would drop his trousers or announce that the Archbishop of Canterbury was really a lizard-man.

Instead he was measured. Yes, he was sure he’d been told to slow down compensation payments. Yes, he’d thought it was so odd that he’d made a note at the time. That was the kind of chap he was. No, he couldn’t explain why the official’s recollection was different, but her record of the meeting had been written a year later. What about Read’s evidence? Well, Staunton replied, it was true that Read had never been personally told to delay compensation. When Staunton had relayed the conversation to Read, they’d agreed to ignore the instruction.

Enter Gullis. Like Badenoch, he’s never shy about having a fight. What about the misconduct investigation, he asked.

Ah, replied Staunton – and this was the moment at which we entered the second phase of the hearing – “Mr Read fell out with his HR director.” She had produced an 80-page report setting out complaints about the chief executive. How much of this had related to Staunton? He held up a page covered in redactions. A single paragraph, relating to “politically incorrect comments attributed to me which I strenuously deny.”

“There’s no political expediency in it for me.” He simply wanted the truth out

His words hung in the air, and we took a moment to savour Badenoch, of all people, feeling she had to dismiss someone for political incorrectness. Perhaps the Business Secretary is secretly woke, insisting that officials click their fingers in meetings in case anyone is triggered by applause. We need an urgent inquiry into whether the departmental canteen has begun a Nestle boycott on her watch.

Gullis rubbed his forehead. “That’s blown my…” he began, then stopped. “I was not expecting that answer.” He appealed for wisdom to Liam Byrne, the committee chairman, who replied that he was “no less shocked”. Though the Labour man sounded a little more cheerful about the revelation.

“I’m not an erratic individual,” Staunton went on, and no, he didn’t seem like one. “I’m not in it for the money.” His pension payments from his many previous roles were already excellent, he revealed. Why was he making trouble for the government? “There’s no political expediency in it for me.” He simply wanted the truth out.

It’s perfectly possible that Staunton’s evidence isn’t the truth, of course, or all of it. At the time of going to press, people close to Badenoch were issuing vehement statements – do they give any other kind? – insisting that the former chair was a wrong ’un. Badenoch’s fans see her as the next leader of the Tories, someone who could take the fight to Labour. Those of us who make a living writing jokes about Parliament also relish the prospect, for different reasons.

Back at the hearing, Gullis looked overwhelmed. He was coming round to the Bates way of thinking. “Maybe the Post Office needs to be buried,” he sighed.

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