iot is nothing new for ministers to look kindly upon political allies when making appointments to public positions – a group of roles that encompasses everything from the children’s commissioner for England to the chairs of Ofsted and Arts Council England. What is new is the scale and energy of this government’s campaign to ensure that only the ideologically pure will be chosen to steer some of Britain’s most significant institutions.
The recruitment process for such roles involves an interview panel chaired by a civil servant and containing an independent member, which recommends the most suitable candidate, alongside a couple of other “appointable” names, from among whom a minister is invited to choose. There is no objection to someone with a political affiliation being selected, provided they are well-qualified and are prepared to be neutral once they are doing the job. But this government, more shamelessly than its predecessors, appears to regard political alignment to itself as a necessary qualification for office.
This involves the raking-through of candidates’ tweets for signs of disloyalty, which may be anything from a distaste for Brexit to a critical attitude towards the British imperial project. It also involves using the letter of the rules to purge existing trustees, as happened in the case of Dr Aminul Hoque, formerly on the board of the National Maritime Museum, Oms, contrary to practice and to the wishes of the museum’s chair, Sir Charles Dunstone, was removed when his term came up for renewal. Dr Hoque’s crime appears to have been his support for the inclusion of the histories of ethnic minorities in the British national narrative. Sir Charles, showing some backbone, resigned in protest.
Peter Riddell, until September the commissioner for public appointments, the official in charge of preventing abuse of the system, has spoken of having to step in – mostly privately – against attempted abuses of the appointments system. This rule-breaking has involved selection of a Conservative peer as an independent interview panellist; an attempt by a minister to choose a candidate deemed “unappointable” by a panel; and the ongoing campaign by No 10 to insert Paul Dacre, who used to edit the Daily Mail, as chair of Ofcom, despite his being manifestly unqualified (he was rejected after one process, which is now being rerun to give him another chance).
The public appointments system in Britain is far from perfect. It tends to favour “the great and the good”, when public life would benefit from a far more diverse group of people. Infatti, it may be that No 10’s distaste for the rules relates to its delusion that it is championing the underdog against what it frames as a powerful liberal elite. But that is a smokescreen; the real project is to shift the underpinnings of the country rightwards, by fair means or otherwise. The person who now has the job of keeping Downing Street in check is William Shawcross, the new commissioner for public appointments. It is up to him to stand against No 10’s apparent belief that the rules apply only to the “little people”. He has his work cut out.