Tories accused of ‘colonising’ state by granting public roles to allies

Estimated read time 4 min read

Britain’s system of public appointments needs to be overhauled by an incoming government over alleged Tory cronyism that has seen dozens of former MPs, party supporters and donors given key public roles, campaigners have urged. The public appointments system was reformed in the 1990s, but ministers still retain significant powers during the selection process. Experts say the current system in effect allows a party to “colonise” key parts of the state.

It was announced last month that former Tory minister Rob Wilson will be the new chair of the Consumer Council for Water, which represents water and sewerage customers across England and Wales.

The Tory peer Philippa Stroud, a former special adviser to Iain Duncan Smith, was appointed earlier this year as chair of the Low Pay Commission, which advises the government about the national minimum wage. And in October last year Eleanor Lyons, a former special adviser to Boris Johnson, was selected as the independent anti-slavery commissioner.

Ministers say such appointments are made on merit and political activity plays no part in the process.

Tom Brake, director of the campaign group Unlock Democracy, said the appointments system needed reform because it was vulnerable to political interference. He said it appeared to offer the opportunity to “appoint friends and cronies”.

He said: “We need an appointments process that is independent, transparent and in which appointments are only made on merit. It should be a completely impartial process.”

The commissioner for public appointments was established in 1995, along with a new code of practice. Ministers can still provide input at every stage and also make the final selection from a shortlist.

A report by the Institute for Government into public appointments in August 2022 found there was a “perception of excessive politicisation” during Johnson’s prime ministership. The report said political affiliation appeared to play a greater role with the most senior jobs. It reported that of nine new chairs declaring political activity in 2020-21, eight were Conservatives.

Tory donor Richard Sharp was appointed chair of the BBC in early 2021, but resigned in April last year after breaking rules over dealings with Johnson before his appointment to the role. He had failed to disclose the role he played in helping Johnson secure an £800,000 loan.

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Paul DacreView image in fullscreen

Johnson also faced controversy over an attempt by the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to become the chair of the media regulator Ofcom. Dacre was widely reported to be Johnson’s favoured candidate, but his application was rejected by the interview panel and he later pulled out of the running when ministers decided to rerun the hiring process.

In February 2021 James Wharton, who ran Johnson’s campaign to become prime minister in 2019, was appointed chair of the Office for Students, the independent regulator of higher education in England. Labour criticised the appointment as “another example of cronyism”.

Other appointments of ex-Tory politicians, candidates or donors include Orlando Fraser, a former Tory parliamentary candidate, appointed in April 2022 as chair of the Charity Commission; Simon Blagden, a Tory donor and former nonexecutive chairman at Fujitsu Telecommunications UK, appointed in July 2022 as chair of Building Digital UK, with the task of delivering faster broadband; and Nick de Bois, a former Tory MP, appointed in November 2022 as chair of the British Tourist Authority.

Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at Sheffield University, said there was a role for ministers in the selection process, but there was limited public confidence in the current system.

He said: “It will be an issue for a new government, which will inherit a huge number of people appointed by the previous administration. It is almost like a colonisation of the state.

“Most of the British state works through these arm’s-length bodies which have a large amount of autonomy. It is critical to good governance to have the best people heading up those bodies.”

Flinders added that he considered the powers of the commissioner for public appointments should be strengthened to improve the public appointment process.


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