Spare a thought for Britain’s ministers and mandarins. Making the right call in the public interest isn’t always easy when they’re endlessly having their ears bent by those with vested interests in their decisions. It is, however, their duty. But it’s one that has been compromised by public service becoming, for too many, just one part of a career in which acquiring the kind of wealth available only beyond Whitehall is a key objective.
This week’s revelation that, for a couple of months in 2015, the government’s chief commercial officer was also working for supply chain finance company Greensill Capital was called “extraordinary and shocking” by the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves. Yet as part of a culture in which gliding from a position of public responsibility into one of private gain is now the norm, the overlap in roles looks no more than a curiosity. The dual role had been approved by a Cabinet Office at the top of which sat the late cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood.
Heywood returned to government in 2008 after a spell at investment bank Morgan Stanley, where he’d met Greensill’s founder, Lex Greensill. By 2011, he was reportedly bringing the Australian into Downing Street to advise on using supply chain finance in government. Fast-forward to Covid-era Britain, when the former prime minister who encouraged him, David Cameron, was found lobbying for taxpayer-funded support for the hitherto obscure Greensill.
This is the “revolving door” in action: it brings into government senior figures not just with a certain expertise, but also a view that favours private over public interests. Going the other way, lucrative opportunities loom for influential public figures to profit in future in areas over which they hold sway. The effect is more insidious than premeditatedly corrupt. Few officials or ministers gleefully rub their hands as they rig decisions to favour future employers, but they do begin to see the world a bit more like those whom it will pay to keep onside. And with lobbying now so technologically easy, the hybrid public-private servant is likely to be more amenable to the text messaging from old colleagues – the modern version of Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey’s armchair chats at the gentleman’s club.
The revolving door – and the concern over it – is nothing new. Cameron could be forgiven for pointing to the myriad positions taken up by his chancellor, George Osborne, in the past five years. After presiding over years of austerity that ultimately enriched the haves at the expense of the have-nots, Osborne landed a one-day-a-week, £650,00-a-year job at asset manager BlackRock. The company also took on his former chief of staff, Rupert Harrison, the architect of the UK’s pension reforms.
So frequently does the revolving door turn that the magazine for which I write, Private Eye, can cover such questionable moves almost every issue. It is not unheard of, for example, for top military brass and Ministry of Defence officials to acquire directorships or advisory positions at the major arms companies – or consultancies deftly sandwiched between them and officialdom – later in their careers. The result is a cadre of officers and civil servants who as good as know that these companies will be their employers before long and that they might well be back in the corridors of power representing them. Even without ill-intent, decision-making is distorted.
The policing of the revolving door remains homeopathically weak. The government’s Advisory Committee on Public Appointments (Acoba), which ex-ministers and the more senior civil servants should consult, is just that. It can be ignored with near impunity and its advice, even in cases with apparently obvious conflicts of interest, is invariably that appointments can go ahead with weak limitations on lobbying former colleagues for just two years. The public and media learn of a revolving door move only after the event, by which time reasons that it might not be such a good idea cannot be considered. In one notable case, the committee approved the former HMRC permanent secretary, Dave Hartnett, joining accountancy firm Deloitte even though he had met one of its senior partners on 48 separate occasions in five years and had been criticised for agreeing a number of “sweetheart deals” with major corporations.
This kind of example has led to repeated reviews of the revolving door system, to no avail. In 2017, parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee found that “the failures of governments to regulate [the revolving door] properly have damaged public trust in politics and public institutions and led to repeated scandals”. The advisory committee was “toothless”. But even relatively mild recommendations from the MPs, such as preventing public servants taking jobs that relate to previous areas of regulatory responsibility for two years, were rejected.
The new Acoba chair, Lord Pickles, promises to be a new broom. But he’s operating under a very old system, which can be changed only by the same politicians who benefit from it. Failure to reform, warned the MPs’ committee four years ago, “will lead to an even greater decline in public trust in our democracy and our government”. In the wake of the Greensill scandal, they can say certainly that again – and on past evidence will probably have to in another few years’ time.
Richard Brooks is a Private Eye journalist and the author of Bean Counters