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Eric leaves the government in a pickle over lobbying

John Crace
·5-min read

The prime minister is spoiled for choice. Last month almost no one had heard of Greensill Capital and everyone had been doing their best to forget David Cameron. Now there isn’t just one ongoing inquiry into government lobbying and Tory cronyism, but six. Though by the time you read this we could be into double figures. One of which is being conducted by the public administration and constitutional affairs committee (Pacac) that just happened to be meeting on Thursday morning to hear evidence from Eric Pickles, chair of the advisory committee on business appointments (Acoba).

The Pacac chair, William Wragg, is generally one of parliament’s more forgettable characters, but with his committee unwittingly finding itself the centre of attention, he was determined to make the most of his time in the sun. His inquiry would be carried out “without fear or favour” he began, which sounded more like a subconscious admission that fear and favour were his default position than a serious warning shot to those whom his committee would be investigating. Still, it was a start, I suppose and there are braver souls on the committee than Wragg.

So what had Pickles made of the senior civil servant, Bill Crothers, being allowed to work for Greensill part-time while remaining in his job as the government’s chief procurement officer? And then seamlessly moving on to work full-time for Greensill without anyone questioning the ethics of the situation. “There were anomalies in the system,” Pickles said, being uncharacteristically diplomatic. Just as there were some special advisers, such as Lex Greensill himself apparently, who didn’t actually count as special advisers.

The pleasantries over, Pickles reverted to something more like his usual blunt self. To misquote PG Wodehouse, he continued, his “eyebrows raised the full quarter-inch” when he discovered that Crothers had been allowed to moonlight for Greensill.

He went on to suggest he had no objection in principle to civil servants doing a bit of freelance work, and that if Crothers had been working as a milkman at the same time as being a top civil servant then there would have been no conflict of interest. In fact, the country would probably have been a lot better off if Crothers had chosen a milk round as the day job. It was hard to disagree.

The longer the session went on, the more it became apparent that Acoba had been set up to fail. Its purpose was to provide a window dressing of propriety for a revolving-door culture at the highest level of government. “We’re not a regulator or a watchdog,” Pickles explained patiently. They were just there to examine and assess risks. Nor was any of his five-person committee paid more than a pittance.

So it was no surprise that they had achieved so little. In the previous year, more than 30,000 civil servants had left government work and Acoba had only given about 100 of them a cursory glance. Pacac should be congratulating it on having brought Crothers’ unorthodox career trajectory to light rather than wondering how many more dodgy moves it might have missed.

But it’s not just civil servants and special advisers who we ought to be keeping an eye on. It’s also several members of the cabinet. Because if I’m not sure whether some of them have second jobs or not, they sure as hell aren’t that keen on doing the one to which they have been appointed by Boris Johnson. On Tuesday, Rishi Sunak went out of his way to avoid an urgent question about his text messages with Dave by sending along Paul Scully, a junior minister in a different department to the Treasury, to deliver his non-answers in his place. And on Wednesday, Michael Gove had made himself scarce for an opposition day debate on Tory sleaze and let Chloe Smith, who is being treated for cancer at home, take the flak instead. His absence made Labour’s point better than many of the speeches.

On Thursday, it was Gavin Williamson’s turn to go missing in inaction. The education secretary was due to answer an urgent question from the Lib Dems’ Daisy Cooper on the return of students to university on 17 May, but he too was a no-show. Perhaps he had some fireplaces to sell. So instead we got Michelle Donelan, a junior minister responsible for higher education.

Related: Westminster watchdog calls for urgent reform after Greensill scandal

Who, to be fair, made a decent fist of a hopeless job. Because whatever the rights and wrongs of the coronavirus arguments – Conservative Greg Clark unhelpfully pointed out Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance agreed that the 500k university students posed no extra risk to anyone – it is completely insane to send students back when most of their courses will have already finished. But Donelan gamely tried to persuade parliament that the students would at least be able to enjoy some of the extracurricular activities they had missed. Like having a haircut or getting a tattoo. Or doing a part-time job to pay off the £40k loan for the contact teaching time and the accommodation they hadn’t been able to use.

Donelan made no attempt to disguise her relief when the deputy speaker ended the session. At the very least it was 40 minutes of hell she would never have to endure again. And if she maintained her poise in the future, she might just get promoted to one of those government jobs that entitled you to kick back your heels and let a junior do it for you instead.