Ministers will wait until the final version of a report on lobbying is published before announcing which of its recommendations they plan to accept. Given the damage caused by the close involvement of a former prime minister, David Cameron, in the Greensill lobbying scandal, and the fact that ministers have now been defeated twice in court over the improper award of contracts, the delay is an unwise as it is unsurprising.
By far the best course for the prime minister would be to indicate now that he will do as Lord Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life (and a former head of MI5), advises. The measures are hardly revolutionary. A ban on ministers and senior civil servants lobbying for five years after leaving office makes sense. So does the suggestion that the public appointments watchdog should get new powers, including the right to prevent ministers taking certain jobs. Given the pace of change in institutions, the current two-year prohibition on lobbying is too short, making it likely that ministers will end up trying to influence former colleagues. There clearly are circumstances in which a rapid move from government to a particular private-sector role would not be appropriate. The proposal for new penalties for rule-breakers is logical too: if rules are to be treated seriously, infractions must be punished.
Lord Evans’s comments on the appointment of non-executive directors to government departments are also judicious. While some ministers clearly relish the opportunity to bring in allies and experts whom they know, the pitfalls of systems that rely on patronage and cronyism are well established. They include a tendency towards groupthink and sycophancy, and a lack of diversity. Releasing lobbying details every four weeks, instead of quarterly, also seems fair. The public, and parliamentarians, should know as much as possible about who is seeking to influence their representatives.
Lobbying is part of how liberal democracy works. Civil society organisations and charities do it when they sign politicians up to campaigns and pledges. Members of the public do it when they approach MPs and others about issues that matter to them. But such contacts need to be conducted in a way that is open, transparent and accountable.
This is even more important where corporate lobbyists wielding significant economic power are concerned. It is wrong for relationships to develop between politicians and businesses that could lead to private interests being placed before the public one. It fosters cynicism and undermines public trust when a former Tory prime minister is revealed to have bombarded ministers with messages on behalf of a company in which he was closely involved. It is extremely concerning that one of the UK’s most successful civil servants, Jeremy Heywood, was also a key figure in the Greensill drama. Gone for now at least are the days when the civil service was thought to be above such goings-on.
Inevitably, the pandemic has overshadowed a great deal. But with two cabinet ministers found to have broken the law, and the reputations of a former PM and cabinet secretary badly damaged, introducing tough new rules is the least that Boris Johnson ought to do.