The patronage state

Chairs of important public bodies should be chosen on merit. But under Boris Johnson, the appointments process descended into farce—and it has yet to recover

March 28, 2024
 Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Lord Nolan holds a finished report on standards in public office. What would he think if he could see recent scandals? Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Nearly three decades ago, an august committee led by an eminent judge laid down seven principles for standards in public life. This judge—Lord Nolan—would be horrified if he could see what is happening now. 

The last few decades have seen a downward spiral in public standards and a corruption of the principles—integrity, accountability, honesty and other virtues of character—that were laid down by Nolan. They have been undermined from within. Rarely since the days of David Lloyd George has there been such a rampant sense of scandal. Boris Johnson epitomised the problem, but it predates him and has outlived his premiership. Now we are on the cusp of a new government, which will have a great deal of cleaning up to do. How did we get here and what can be done about it?  

Appointments to public bodies are only one part of this story, but they are an important thread, affecting swathes of our national life. The governor of the Bank of England is a public appointment; so is the chair of the BBC. The overlord of this area is the commissioner for public appointments, whose office was set up in the wake of Nolan’s report. But, largely because of their lack of powers, officeholders have been relatively supine and the role hardly fulfils the criteria to be called a regulator at all. The commissioner has few levers to pull, save that of generating publicity and calling on ministers to exercise restraint. There is no pressure on the government to obey the Code on Public Appointments beyond the court of public opinion, and mostly such appointments do not arouse much public interest—less than appointments to, say, the House of Lords, which operates on a different system. 

The single-minded determination of Johnson’s government to concentrate control of public appointments under a tight group of advisers was unprecedented, while social media has made it easier to check up on the views of applicants. Such developments have risked advancing the hegemony of a narrow clique of political supporters in such appointments, with serious consequences for the way the country is run.

During Johnson’s tenure, ministers went the extra mile to favour friends and cronies through avenues such as the VIP lane for Covid protective equipment. There was a parallel attempt at a “cultural cleansing” of the national institutions. The system did not change, but the use of that system was far more brazen. The cumulative effect is very uncomfortable.

Chris Bryant, former chair of the Commons Standards Committee, told me when Johnson still occupied Number 10 that “The government seem hellbent on only appointing people from a very small pool of likeminded individuals. The only criteria for appointment seem to be support for the PM and an opposition to the ‘woke’ agenda.” Some say there was comparable bias under Blair, but at least New Labour was a very wide tent. The Johnson government was not sympathetic to the big-tent notion (even within the Conservative party) but rather operated within a small tipi. Rishi Sunak professed an ambition to clean up public life when he entered Downing Street, and he is less obviously contemptuous of the system—but many of its structural faults remain unchanged, and his government’s response to recent reform proposals from various eminent committees has been distinctly tepid. 

A robust system requires that those who have come through the proper independent appointment processes are not turned down purely on grounds of their political beliefs. But Jonathan Michie, president of Kellogg College, Oxford, was. A distinguished economist (and, full disclosure, my regular tennis partner), he was approved by an independent panel as the new executive chair of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), only to be rejected without interview by the then business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, in early 2022, reportedly because of his perceived left-wing politics. It is true that he had, decades earlier, written a book with Seumas Milne, who later became Jeremy Corbyn’s chief of strategy. However, Michie had not publicly voiced any political views for decades, although his sister was a prominent member of Sage during the coronavirus pandemic who did not slavishly follow the government line, while his former brother-in-law was a senior adviser to Corbyn.  

The business department simply said that no “suitable” candidate had been found, and that the search would be resumed to establish “a wider range of candidates”. There appears to have been no basis for a finding of unsuitability in Michie’s case other than his perceived politics.  

Indeed, Kwarteng’s views were clearly not shared by the independent appointment panel, which was made up of some weighty public servants. They were: John Kingman, the founding chair of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI); Ottoline Leyser, UKRI’s chief executive; Gerard Lyons, the economist and vocal Brexiteer; and finally Mike Keoghan, a senior official in the business department, who sat in the chair. The whole point of the independent appointments panel, you might think, is to assess merit, and this panel could hardly be accused of covert left-wing sympathies. It had told Michie during the interview that he had an impressive CV and a good background, and then subsequently in a letter that he had “impressed” the panel. He asked for feedback from Kwarteng after the rejection, but feedback came there none.  

The ESRC post is particularly sensitive because the government and the wider public depend on impartial social science research and research-based solutions to national problems. The executive chair must be committed to that rigorous approach. The government’s behaviour might have sent the signal that it wanted to limit the range of what it considers legitimate research. This would be inappropriate and potentially constitutes a rather slippery slope. Kwarteng’s approach might have been unlawful as well as unwise, in that it apparently constituted discrimination on the grounds of political belief, although Michie did not stoop to suing.

This is just one of many recent abuses. The present system of public appointments is just not fit for purpose. Appointment has become rather like some aspects of the honours system: a bauble for supporting the party. Some have told me they now refuse to serve as independent members of appointment panels on the basis that they have no discernible impact on the outcome. The risk is that we finish up with the old system of preferment as it used to be before the Nolan Committee.

Recent years have also seen much greater politicisation of appointments in arts and culture. Under Johnson, many appointments were viewed through the prism of the culture wars waged from Downing Street. There was a particularly aggressive approach to board appointments at museums and other cultural institutions, so that only those from a clique considered to be close in thinking to the government would be considered for appointment. There is a whiff of the pedigree chumocracy about all this: it represents a turning back of the clock. In one especially egregious example, the government opposed the nomination of the distinguished classicist Mary Beard as a trustee of British Museum, reportedly because of her pro-EU views. In the end the museum board discovered that it had the power to make a few appointments of its own and chose… Mary Beard. 

Checks and balances have gradually been weakened, in some cases to be replaced simply by the offer of cheques. Two different processes are operating (both of which are also present in appointments to the House of Lords). First, there is patronage at its more straightforwardly transactional: certain positions are being used as rewards for party supporters. Second, there is the ideological aspect. This is more understandable. The government want more likeminded people around them, more believers in them and their project. The thinking runs that if the political programme on which a minister has been elected is reducing poverty, of course they would want to ensure that the chair of any body tasked with reducing poverty shares the commitment and view of the world that they believe is needed to achieve this reduction (as well as the skills to drive it through). After all, in most organisations, being seen to support the values for which it stands is a key positive in the recruitment process and a sign of merit. This line of thinking makes sense—up to a point. The risk arises when it is taken too far and is used as a justification for favouritism and a compromising of the process.  

Public appointments is a massive area. According to the latest figures, there were 4,476 public appointees in the UK and 1,190 regulated appointments were made in the period between 2021 and 2022 alone.

The system before the original Nolan Committee opined in the 1990s was anything but formal; rather, there was the “tap on the shoulder”, sometimes occurring in the gentleman’s clubs around Pall Mall. The temptation was to appoint “people like us”. The “us” were generally white and middle class. 

Although merit and patronage do not gel well, the Nolan report decided that “ultimate responsibility for appointments should remain with ministers” but that this process should be “open”. The argument is that, given that accountability to parliament is through ministers and roles in quangos are inherently political, ministers should retain ultimate control of selection. However, this should never be a license for cronyism; where an independent panel has reached a fair-minded and informed decision, its judgment should be heeded. 

The government opposed the nomination of Mary Beard as a trustee of British Museum—reportedly because of her pro-EU views

 The interview panel for most appointments has traditionally been chaired by a senior civil servant and included an independent member appointed by the commissioner. Under the coalition government a review was carried out by Gerald Grimstone—a former chairman of Barclays Bank and, since 2020, a Conservative peer—after which the process was devolved to the sponsoring government department. Each department takes its own approach. 

Ministers have the right to be consulted and involved throughout the process, but it is accepted as good practice to seek the minister’s views on the role, job description, person specification and publicity options for the vacant post at the beginning, as well as inviting the minister to put forward the names of potential candidates at an early stage. Chums can be inserted into the mix here (and the job description skewed towards their apparent attributes), while ministers can lower the bar that candidates are required to clear in order to be judged appointable, but the apparent (and sometimes more apparent than real) safety valve of the system is that the candidates still have to go through the scrutiny of an independent panel, which often does not come out with the answer the minister wants. 

A shortlist is selected for interview. The minister will, at the end of the interview stage, choose from the list of names judged to be appointable by the appointments panel. It should run smoothly; I have, however, heard worrying tales of interference and of practices that would not pass muster in an employment tribunal (and luckily for the offenders, the roles in question do not technically constitute employment). The overriding problem at present is the opaqueness of the process. All discussions with ministers at the shortlisting stage should be properly recorded and currently they are not. 

The post of commissioner for public appointments (CPA) was introduced in 1995 and the role is currently held by William Shawcross. Nolan intended that the officeholder would “regulate, monitor and report on” appointments. The commissioner has a very large number of these to consider. So, with such a challenging brief and a bulging in-tray, you would expect the CPA to be well-resourced. You would be wrong. The office has only a handful of staff—including the part-time commissioner—and is based within the Civil Service Commission Secretariat. Grimstone generally limited the power of the commissioner to auditing departments’ choices. The commissioner now has a more passive, reactive role; this is “regulation” on a shoestring. 

Serious abuses need to be cleaned up, but the CPA has no enforcement power to do so. Ministers briefing the media about their preferred candidate before the process has had a chance to attract others makes a mockery of proceedings. It can make it appear to those outside the gilded circle of pre-preferred candidates that the result of a competition is a foregone conclusion (and thus put many candidates off from applying).

 This happened most blatantly in three potential appointments made to important and sensitive media bodies by Johnson’s government. There was the constant briefing by Number 10 that former Telegraph editor Charles Moore would become chair of the BBC. This was an unlikely nomination, given that not only was he fiercely critical of the BBC but also had refused to pay his licence fee at one time and had been fined. He ruled himself out of contention, but the widespread trailing of it put others off applying.

After Moore withdrew and Richard Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who was previously Rishi Sunak’s boss—and who, over many years, has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservatives—was widely touted in the media as the likely chair. He was known to be a favourite well before his actual appointment. Only a few other serious candidates bothered to put their heads above the parapet to apply.  

What was not known to the appointments panel was that Sharp had introduced Johnson’s distant cousin Sam Blyth to Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, with a view to discussing Blyth guaranteeing a loan (it is still not known who made the loan) of up to £800,000 to the prime minister. Sharp discussed his becoming chair with Johnson before applying for the job, even though, as PM, Johnson would have to approve the appointment. Sharp, however, assured the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee several times that “I believe that I was appointed on merit”. He eventually resigned, after months of uncertainty for the BBC.

A further furore concerned the controversial on-off process for Paul Dacre, who was frequently trailed in Number 10 briefings as the soon-to-be-appointed chair of Ofcom, the communications watchdog, in 2020. Dacre edited the Daily Mail for 26 years and was the combative chief spokesman for many years of the Tory right. Ofcom has an especially pivotal role because it regulates the media sector, including the BBC and the right-wing GB News, and for years the Mail has been Enemy Number One of the BBC. Ultimately Dacre withdrew his candidacy, but not before other qualified candidates had been put off from ever applying. The eventual winner in the appointments lottery was Michael Grade, a former Tory peer who became a crossbencher to take the job.

There is no shortage of problematic examples. The appointment of Tory peer James Wharton (who was an MP in Stockton between 2010 to 2017 and helped run Johnson’s 2019 leadership campaign) as the new chair of the Office for Students in 2021 appears to have involved the dark art of panel-packing; a Conservative-dominated panel appointed a former Conservative MP without any obvious experience in the education sphere to this important (and well-remunerated) role. It was also a sensitive post because it was to be given responsibility for freedom of speech in universities, another key culture war issue.

The CPA raised concerns about a packed selection panel for this role, but to no avail; this shows the limited power of the office. The interview team consisted of Laura Wyld, a Tory peer; Patricia Hodgson, a former Tory candidate; Nick Timothy, the former chief of staff to Theresa May, Eric Ollerenshaw, a Tory MP from 2010 to 2015; and Susan Acland-Hood, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education. 

Party donors should not have any special purchase on public appointments, but in fact they do. An investigation in February 2022 found that six Tory donors had been appointed to run cultural bodies, among them the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate and the British Museum. These appointments may be of excellent candidates, but the look is wrong and the smell test is engaged. Between them, the six had given more than £3m to the party.

One of the founders of Carphone Warehouse, David Ross, was reappointed chair of the National Portrait Gallery. As well as being a major Tory donor he had (it was alleged) the extra advantage for Number 10 that he had arranged a holiday in Mustique for Boris Johnson at the end of 2019. He was due to receive a peerage in the Johnson resignation honours list, but his name was taken off (we still do not know why). 

There are many other examples that raise concerns. Uzma Hasan, a film producer, and Fru Hazlitt, a broadcasting executive and former managing director at ITV, Yahoo and GCap Media, were not reappointed to their posts on the board of Channel 4, without any misconduct or lack of capability on their part. This decision was made against the express advice of both the Channel 4 board and Ofcom. Former Paralympic swimmer and Conservative peer Chris Holmes had his time extended; of the remaining eight board members, seven were white men. This came in the context of the row over the sale of Channel 4 mooted by the government at the time—it was reported that the government wanted more financial expertise on the board. 

Robbie Gibb, whom regular readers of will know of, was transplanted to the BBC board by Johnson’s government. He has been an editorial adviser to GB News and was communications director at Downing Street under Theresa May. Harry Mount, the editor of the magazine, was appointed to sit on the House of Lords Appointments Commission—which recommends and vets appointments to the upper house—by Johnson during the caretaker period after the latter resigned as PM. This broke the convention that a PM should not make controversial appointments during such a period. Mount’s greatest literary work was entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson, and he was a long-time Spectator journalist, the title formerly edited by Johnson. He resigned a fortnight after his appointment. 

Even the chairing of the bodies supervising honours became politicised. In 2015, Vernon Ellis, a distinguished businessman who had held senior public appointments, and was chair of the Arts and Media Honours Committee between 2012 and 2015, pushed back on a senior honour being lined up for someone by Number 10. He was warned by the cabinet secretary that consequences would follow if this position remained fixed and that the pragmatic course would be to accept it. The same candidate came up again about six months later, with the same outcome and the consequence that his chairmanship was not renewed. In 2022 a Conservative party donor, John Booth, was appointed to the post. 

Margaret Thatcher famously often asked the question "Is he one of us?" before an appointment was made

I could go on and on in this vein, but regulated public appointments are far from the only component of the system that is vulnerable to abuse. Rather vague “tsar” positions also proliferated under the Johnson (and immediately previous) governments, becoming an important part of the “patronage state”. These constitutionally ambiguous leadership roles are historically not subject to any regulation at all. If you can set up a new body or tsardom and appoint whomever you like to the position, you can effectively bypass the “inconvenience” of the public appointments criteria altogether. These positions have often been given out as rewards for political loyalty, with no rules, procedures or codes to govern the appointment, the pay or the scope of the role. Many Tory MPs have been appointed as unpaid trade envoys and to other such jobs, so that the “payroll” vote of those signed up to support the government no matter what gets bigger.

There has been some—belated—improvement here. Non-executive directors of government departments have not previously fallen within the public appointments paradigm; that is now changing and these roles will be regulated in the same way. It is too early to judge the impact. Tsardoms in general are now being made more transparent—but this is not the case for all of them. As well as that additional transparency, a presumption should be put in place that such appointments will normally come within the ambit of the CPA. 

The collapse of standards in public life did not start with Johnson. Here we need a little history. One of the most notorious examples of nepotism was under Labour, when Peter Jay was appointed by his father-in-law Jim Callaghan as ambassador to Washington in 1977 at the age of 40, notwithstanding that he had zero diplomatic experience. In the 1980s, public appointments were blatantly and unashamedly political. Margaret Thatcher famously often asked the question “Is he one of us?” before an appointment was made (it was rarely a “she”). 

Notwithstanding the formation of the Nolan Committee in the 1990s, New Labour was accused of picking political allies for key posts. The governments headed by Blair and Brown, it is said, ensured that the chairs of many NHS Trusts were Labour-leaning. There was also the phenomenon of the “Quango Queens” (as the tabloid media misogynistically dubbed them), who were close to the government and who acquired a number of appointments. Indeed, the right argues that Britain is still, so many years after his retirement as prime minister, run essentially by a Blairite elite of “liberal metropolitans”. The ConservativeHome website has a regular feature entitled “Calling Conservatives” that encourages its readers to apply for vacant posts and reset the balance. 

Ed Richards, a member of the Number 10 Policy Unit under Blair, denied to me that there were overly political appointments under New Labour—and gave this reason: 

Tony Blair said—in keeping with his overall stance, as far as I witnessed it—that always “we want the best person for the job”. He was meritocratic about these matters, but it was more than that; the New Labour project was designed to be capable of absorbing ideas and capability from a broad group, so there would always be room for people who were not Labour to gain public appointments. This seemed to me to be part of wanting to make Labour a more natural party of government.

All my research suggests that politicisation was taken to new lengths under Johnson, with much greater centralisation of the process in Number 10. Special advisers, “Spads”, became more involved. There were weekly public appointments meetings. The “cultural cleansing” of appointments, to install allies in positions of power, was spearheaded by Dougie Smith, often described as the most important person in the UK you have probably never heard of (although Nadine Dorries has taken him from the shadows). 

As we anticipate a Labour government, it is important that Labour addresses this issue and does not repeat the Conservative way of doing things from the opposite perspective (as will indeed be tempting, given the number of their supporters who may covet such posts). They should reinstate the system as it was before the Grimstone report. The CPA should be responsible for appointing key roles—administering the system, not just weakly regulating it. By default, public appointments should fall within the scope of the commissioner. Donations should not be a way into public appointments; independent panels should always rank the applicants, not merely say whether a person is appointable; the role of the commissioner should be put on a clearer statutory basis; all discussions with ministers should be recorded. This will not rule out abuses, but will make them less likely. 

Politicians cannot be relied upon to be “good chaps”. We must halt the downward spiral.  

John Bowers’s latest book, “Downward Spiral: Collapsing Public Standards and How to Restore Them”, will be published by Manchester UP on 2nd April