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LONDON â€” Westminsterâ€™s latest ethics scandal is bigger than David Cameron.
The former prime minister set off a firestorm with his controversial attempts to influence serving government ministers on behalf of Greensill, a now-collapsed finance firm that hired him as an adviser.
But the latest twist in the story â€” a senior government official given the green light to work for Greensill for months while still retaining his civil service job â€” is causing fresh headaches for Boris Johnson.
And itâ€™s raising questions over long-running attempts to blur the lines between the U.K.â€™s private sector and civil service.
Bill Crothers, responsible for overseeing government contracts as procurement chief until 2015, was allowed to work as a paid adviser to Greensillâ€™s board while still a public official. The job split was approved by the governmentâ€™s own (unpublished) â€œinternal conflicts of interest policy,â€ the Cabinet Office said â€” gifting the opposition Labour Party another chance to paint the Conservatives as relaxed about â€œsleaze.â€
Johnson moved quickly to distance himself from a row that has so far focused on his old political rival and predecessor-but-one at No. 10. The prime minister has given an investigator â€œcarte blancheâ€ to look into the affair.
To some, the latest furore shows the danger of Westminsterâ€™s alphabet soup of ethics regulators, including a lobbying regulator â€” the Office for the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists â€” that leaves out vast swathes of the industry, and a revolving door watchdog â€” the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, chaired by former Cabinet minister Eric Pickles â€” whose remit lacks teeth.
â€œI think the fact that all Eric Pickles really can do as the chair of ACOBA is write letters and not much else shows that theyâ€™re only really fit to regulate those who want to comply, and those who donâ€™t can relatively happily ignore it,â€ Alex Thomas, a former aide to ex-Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood who now works at the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank, said.
Gill Morris, a lobbyist for agency DevoConnect, said a week of damaging headlines had shown that existing lobbying rules, introduced in 2014, were â€œnever fit for purpose.â€ She added: â€œYou cannot be a legislator and a lobbyist, and you certainly cannot be a former prime minister and a lobbyist. It just doesnâ€™t work.â€
Yet a blurring of the lines between state and outside interests is not uncommon in U.K. officialdom and has been actively encouraged for years. Crothersâ€™ own one-time role as a â€œCrown Representativeâ€ was part of a drive by Cameronâ€™s government to better equip the civil service to face down big private sector suppliers who ministers felt had been ripping off the state for years.
â€œThere was a feeling that if you were going to get rid of the oligopoly, assuming that there was one, then youâ€™d have to have people internally who had that knowledge, that experience, and the ability to challenge all that,â€ one ex-senior official said.
Britainâ€™s civil servants often hold outside interests â€” some are school governors, others are executive directors of charities â€” but the key question, said Thomas of the IfG, is whether potential conflicts of interest are properly managed.
He said the split role at the heart of the latest row â€” â€œbeing the governmentâ€™s top procurement person and an adviser to a company that was interested in procuring government contractsâ€ â€” should have rung alarm bells. â€œThat feels like a conflict that you would not hold as a civil servant,â€ he said.
Crothers told the watchdog his move â€œwas not seen as contentious, and I believe not uncommonâ€ in Whitehall. The Times reported Wednesday that Johnsonâ€™s most senior official has asked all civil servants to inform him of any â€œsecondary work, particularly where financial payment is received.â€
The former official quoted above said they had not been surprised by Cameronâ€™s own lobbying, describing it as what some â€œex-politicians do.â€ But they were more troubled by what seemed like a â€œpretty bizarreâ€ mixture of roles permitted for the ex-procurement chief. They pointed out that the Cabinet Officeâ€™s internal Propriety and Ethics team, which polices potential conflicts of interest, also has to grapple with wider political considerations.
Senior officials who have to â€œwork hand in glove with No. 10 on a daily basisâ€ can end up walking a â€œfine lineâ€ between â€œdoing their job and not falling out with No. 10 on an hour-by-hour basis,â€ they said.
Still, some are urging against ending attempts to make the civil service more â€œporousâ€ to the private sector, as Cabinet minister Matt Hancock described it in 2016.
A former government adviser said there was a risk of â€œthrowing the baby out with the bathwaterâ€ in the wake of the row. Having a government â€œrun by people with no experience of life outside Whitehall is not the panacea some are making it out to be,â€ they added. â€œYou can have interchange between the civil service and the private sector in a way that is both appropriate, transparent and also beneficial.â€
Thomas agrees that a â€œblanket banâ€ on officials switching between government and business would be counterproductive. â€œYou shouldnâ€™t stop people moving between sectors,â€ he said. â€œBut you do need to make sure that their conduct while they are in public service is appropriate and conflicts of interest are really properly managed with rigor.â€
Heywood, the late civil service head who was a vocal champion of Greensill in government, once described his own stint at American investment bank Morgan Stanley as â€œshock to the systemâ€ for a career official, picking up an â€œincessant drive for innovation, differentiation and creativity.â€ He said he came back into government keen to open up Whitehallâ€™s thinking â€” yet also warned: â€œYou do not want to throw away what the civil service uniquely brings â€” a lack of vested interest.â€
Johnson, under heavy fire in the House of Commons Wednesday before MPs voted down a Labour bid for a more wide-ranging inquiry into the affair, seems to agree.
â€œI do think it is a good idea, in principle, that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience with the private sector,â€ he said. â€œWhen I look at the accounts Iâ€™m reading today, itâ€™s not clear that those boundaries were properly understood.â€