The appointment of Francis Urquhart – sorry, Gavin Williamson (pictured above, credit: Wikkipedia) – to the Cabinet has certainly sparked an almighty row. EvolvePolitics seem to sum it up best if you haven’t yet caught up with the shock, horror, and intrigue, back-stabbing that accompanied the news.
But if we just take the general concern that Mr Williamson is in some way unsuitable, what’s to be done? Should not any Prime Minister have complete power of patronage – to select a ministerial team that they have most confidence in?
Well of course the PM, whoever it is, has to balance straight away what they want against what they can get away with. Factions to placate, influential figures to keep on-side (or tied up in the case of the Brexiters given the poop-scoop and told to clear up their self-made post-referendum mess). And eactly in whom can the current PM have faith in such a Balkanised, fratricidal environment?
Let’s set aside the politics of the moment and look at governance. Should candidates for high office go through some sort of vetting, assessment of their suitability and bona fides? That’s what happens in the USA – Congressional confirmation hearings are a deeply embedded feature.
And the grilling – or prospect of interrogation – is intense, and usually public. Yes, it’s thorough but arguably it is as fair as a ducking stool and can be highly partisan – not necessarily along party lines, but there is an obvious risk of bias based on gender, race, and other so-called protected characteristics, plus geography and social background.
So if hearings aren’t such a good idea, how about something paper-based. A thresh-hold you have to meet before getting your feet under the desk.
Hmm. Ok if there is a technical or professional need for a particular qualification – as in architecture, or law, or accountancy, or football coaching. But for politicians? Even those in charge of huge departments like the MoD? Political judgement is arguably something you can only measure by public vote and often in retrospect.
But a paper-based sift is possible when it comes to conduct. At one extreme, a criminal conviction would usually weigh heavily against prospective appointees (though times change of course). So too would bankruptcy. But what about softer measures? A caution for example? A reprimand for inappropriate behaviour? Allegations of misconduct, whether upheld or not? And what is the cross-over between problematic conduct and the role in question? Should a councillor who picks up a speeding ticket whilst not on local authority business have to declare it?
In the UK we have come some way in establishing a checklist of values – The 1994 Nolan Principles – we expect public servants to uphold. But what these principles mean in practice can be at best opaque, and arguably the bar has been set too low.
Thank heavens then for our free press and surveillance society? The line between secret and private has all but disappeared. Both are fair game for our news media. A media that, in print and internet incarnations, has no “fit and proper” test as to who can own, run news and opinion outlets. A media where opinion can so easily masquerade as fact, and where the sanction for front page lies and distortions is (in my view) ineffectual. I’m not saying for one moment media regulation is easy but the political agendas of many mass circulation publications – including antipathy to notions of public service itself – makes for unreliable and uneven scrutiny.
Personally, I prefer a middle way. You ask candidates to declare their fitness-for-office. You are explicit about what this means in practice, and require disclosure of conflicts of interest, alleged professional shortcomings. You make it clear that transparency is crucial and opaque or misleading responses will have consequences. And you make sure you have a strong independent presence throughout, one which can “talent spot” as well as be a safeguard against vested interests.
It’s not foolproof – and to sack someone who has been found to have given a false account can be awkward. But not to do so would be far worse. Generally, this seems to work well in a variety of circumstances and sectors. But could it be adapted for prospective Cabinet Ministers?
It’s not been a great week for the mother of all parliaments. The surprise appointment of our new Defence Secretary is small beer to the continuing and unfolding allegations of sexual harassment.
All in all, it sounds like we need a Committee for Standards in Public Life. Hang on a minute………. One thing that everyone may agree it is time for a rapid rethink of their terms of reference. They’ve a big job to do.