Sir Laurie Magnus named Rishi Sunak’s new ethics adviser

Prime minister appoints Historic England chair to role that had been vacant for six months

Rishi Sunak has appointed a former banker and quango head to be his ethics adviser after a six-month delay in filling the post, but will not allow the new incumbent to launch his own investigations into potential wrongdoing.

Sir Laurie Magnus, who spent his career in corporate finance and who chairs Historic England, will take over from Christopher Geidt, who resigned as the independent adviser on ministers’ interests under Boris Johnson in June.

Lord Geidt, who stepped down over proposals to break international law on trade policy but was known to be unhappy about Johnson’s role in lockdown-breaching No 10 parties, was the second consecutive holder of the post to quit.

In November 2020, Sir Alex Allan resigned in protest after Johnson refused to sack Priti Patel as home secretary despite a formal investigation finding evidence that she had bullied civil servants.

On entering Downing Street, Sunak pledged to put integrity and accountability at the centre of his government but struggled to find a replacement for Geidt, with several earlier candidates understood to have turned down the role.

One issue had been that Sunak did not plan to allow the adviser to launch their own investigations into ministers but would wait for No 10 to request this. Geidt was known to be dissatisfied with this, and had indicated he expected his powers to be expanded.

But in a letter to Magnus, released by Downing Street, Sunak wrote: “I propose to retain the existing terms of reference, as agreed with your predecessor.”

This would mean that Magnus would be unable to begin his own inquiries into the conduct of Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and deputy prime minister, over a series of bullying allegations, or about Suella Braverman, the home secretary, over claims of leaking and ignoring legal advice over asylum. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Dave Penman, head of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said: “The prime minister retains a veto over investigations into his ministers’ conduct and is the sole arbiter of the ministerial code, including any sanctions. How will this give civil servants the confidence to come forward?

“Since Sunak became prime minister one minister has resigned amid allegations of bullying and another is currently subject to eight separate complaints. Yet there is not even an attempt to reform the broken system for dealing with ministerial conduct.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said Sunak had “chosen to preserve the rotten ethics regime he inherited”, adding: “This weak prime minister is failing to deliver the integrity he promised and instead has installed yet another toothless watchdog.”

Magnus is not known to have formal links to the Conservative party, although his elevation to the Historic England role came amid a move by the David Cameron government to appoint quango heads who were seen as broadly sympathetic.

In advance of the 2005 general election, Magnus was among 67 business leaders who wrote to the Financial Times saying that Michael Howard’s Conservatives had a better economic plan and would reduce “burdensome regulation”.

House of Commons records show that Magnus gave the Conservative MP Nick Boles £3,000 in December 2017 to support researching and writing a book. Three other donors also contributed to the costs of the book, giving a further £16,500.

In his letter to Sunak, Magnus, who was educated at Eton and Oxford before chairing the corporate investment advisers Lexicon Partners, made no mention of the role’s powers. Saying he would “endeavour to discharge the important responsibilities of the role with fairness and integrity”, Magnus promised to complete the often delayed annual report into ministers’ interests, produced by his office, by May 2023, and to compile a list of interests “well before” then.

Magnus advises another investment advisory firm, Evercore Partners. Since 2013 he has chaired Historic England, formerly known as English Heritage.

Amid the debate over memorials and statues connected to the slave trade following the Black Lives Matters movement and the toppling of the Bristol statue to the slave trader Edward Colston, Magnus suggested a policy of keeping such pieces in place but adding “counter-memorials” alongside them.

In his letter appointing Magnus, Sunak wrote: “I have sought to identify potential candidates who can demonstrate the critical qualities of integrity and independence; relevant expertise and experience; and an ability to command the trust and confidence of ministers.

“Having discussed the role with you, I am confident that you not only demonstrate these qualities but that you will serve in the role with distinction, in the best traditions of public service.”


Peter Walker Political correspondent and Henry Dyer

The GuardianTramp

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