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Dominic Grieve and Helen MacNamara: 'There’s an urgent need to restore trust'

Dominic Grieve and Helen MacNamara (Photography by Charlie Forgham-Bailey)

5 min read

Boris Johnson tested the ‘good chaps’ theory of government to destruction but the authors of a governance audit tell Francis Elliott the issues run far deeper than a few ‘bad actors’

Britain is not – yet – a fully corrupt country but it is complacent about the rot setting in. The guardrails that ensured public confidence, meanwhile, are weak or absent. In consequence, a rising damp of cynicism is creeping up the walls. As a surveyor’s report, the findings of the UK Governance Project would have potential buyers searching for the exit. We residents, however, are stuck.

There will be some who mock the group of former and current parliamentarians, academics and civil servants as a self-selected clique of ‘great and good’ indulging in some ineffective hand-wringing. Certainly the launch of the project’s report at the end of January did not cause huge waves outside Westminster.

“It’s very easy to say there’s just some bad actors. That’s the wrong way of looking at these questions”

But Dominic Grieve, the former Conservative attorney general, was encouraged to believe that this was a good moment in the political cycle to lobby for some urgent repairs. Few if any of the 11 recommendations across four themes will come as a surprise to even casual observers of the United Kingdom’s rickety political system. Many focus on making properly independent bodies that can currently too easily be overridden by Downing Street fiat.

What they lack in novelty they make up for in practicality, say their authors, almost all of whom have spent long careers in the engine rooms of government. Meeting The House ahead of the report’s publication, together with fellow project commissioner Helen MacNamara, former deputy cabinet secretary, Grieve is asked which of the fixes he wants to see first.

“The one that really cries out to be done is to deal with the ministerial code,” he says. “The big picture is the relationship between the executive and the House of Commons.”

“I’m also a realist,” he adds. “That will be hardest to persuade any government to implement because of the way power is distributed, but I actually think it would make a compelling difference to improving our system of government.”

The largely unspoken context is that, while formally a cross-party affair, it is Labour and the Liberal Democrats who are most likely to take on board recommendations that include making ministers directly responsible for the conduct of the special advisers. In effect this is a shopping list for Sue Gray, MacNamara’s former colleague, who is now Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.

Populists looking for instant outrage will be disappointed. MacNamara, for example, thinks there should be more ceremony and formality around ministers, not less. “By dismantling some of the symbols of what it is to be a minister, you undermine the value [of the office],” says MacNamara, a former head of the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team. Incoming ministers ought to take an oath – including to uphold standards – before the King, the report suggests.

It would be a mistake, she says, to think that the problems stem only from a decline in morality of politicians. “It’s very easy to say there’s just some bad actors. I think that’s completely the wrong way of looking at these questions. What we’ve seen are symptoms of a system that isn’t, in fact, good enough and doesn’t protect anybody, including the people operating it, by the way. Having some actual clarity and some actual definition would be just cheaper, easier [and] more effective.”

Dominic Grieve Helen MacNamara
Dominic Grieve and Helen MacNamara (Photography by Charlie Forgham-Bailey)

The call for a Royal Commission on the civil service will have some rolling their eyes, but both Grieve and MacNamara insist that such an exercise could be done within 18 months. A government will never have the bandwidth or inclination to implement the changes MacNamara says are needed for a service “under strain”.

Both want to restore to the Commons functions and abilities proper to it and so combat the pernicious consequences of a politics that rewards short-term presentation over genuine delivery or scrutiny. Both the legislative and executive arms are culpable.

Grieve says the House of Commons has become more concerned with image and being able to “get a slot over in Millbank or to pontificate”, which takes MPs away from their actual work. 

“[Successive] governments encouraged that... so Parliament’s scrutiny of legislation is very poor,” he says. “Its sense of independence, of responsibility to ensure good governance, is also very poor; and its scrutiny of secondary legislation is almost non-existent.”

Grieve concedes: “At times it’s rather useful to be slippery and to do naughty things. But once you start turning it into a habit, it ends up gobbling you up. And that’s exactly what I think we’ve seen happen over quite a long period in modern British government. It’s become more complex and it’s easier to do presentational politics. The short-term manipulation of the airwaves has become almost more important than the fundamentals of the policy.”

He adds: “I do not understand how governments see it as an advantage to have these loose rules about conduct which they then try to circumvent, leading them to go down another five notches in the public’s estimation. 

“We’re clearly facing a major crisis,” he says. “On all the polling evidence, we’ve seen a huge crisis of confidence. People think politicians are corrupt; they think politicians lie. Actually, most of them are not corrupt and don’t lie, but that’s where we’ve got ourselves to. So, on that, I think there’s an urgent need to restore trust.” 

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