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A Question for the Cabinet Office on Investigations

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Written by Nick Busvine

As someone who has spent a considerable proportion of their career – both as a civil servant and in the private sector – investigating corrupt practice and serious crime, I would very much welcome an explanation from the Cabinet Office about how and on what basis they choose to investigate senior civil servants and ministers.

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This should not be a difficult question to answer.  Ministers and Civil Servants are governed by their respective codes of conduct – as well as the law of the realm.  The mechanisms for the triggering and conduct of investigations should be beyond reproach.  But are they? Increasing public concern is being expressed that investigative action may be politically driven and fundamentally anti-democratic.

The recent furore over Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s speeding points is a case in point.  There was strong pressure from civil servants (backed by elements of the mainstream media) to have Braverman declared in breach of the ministerial code and sacked.  After some hesitation, the Prime Minister has now ruled that Braverman has no case to answer.

Although Braverman remains in post, her colleague former Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab was forced out of office as a result of bullying allegations brought against him by civil servants.  The former PUS of the Foreign Office, Lord McDonald, claims responsibility for delivering the coup de grace to the premiership of Boris Johnson.  The Cabinet Office has now referred additional evidence to the police which may indicate that the former Prime Minister was guilty of breaches of his own lockdown rules.  This comes on top of the deliberations of the Privileges Committee on the issue of whether Johnson lied to the House of Commons.  This investigation in turn followed the publication of the Sue Gray report on possible lockdown breaches by Johnson during the pandemic.  Gray, it will be remembered, served as Director General, Propriety and Ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018.  For all her familiarity with propriety and ethics, however, it seems that she has felt no compunction about refusing to provide chapter and verse on when she began to discuss with Sir Keir Starmer the possibility of working as his Labour party chief of staff.  I should have thought that anyone contemplating that sort of move into the political world from the civil service ought properly to have recused themselves from investigating a serving prime minister.

The urgency with which the civil service machine has chosen to pursue prominent Brexiteers stands in marked contrast to its approach to the so-called Labour ‘Beergate’ scandal.  There has also been what can only be described as a shocking case of double-standards in the case of the senior civil servant Angus Lapsley – an avowed Remainer.  Lapsley, it will be recalled, was the Foreign Office official who removed top secret documents from the MoD in 2021 and then, for some reason, managed to leave them in a plastic bag next to a bus stop in Tonbridge.  There are a number of deeply concerning aspects to this case, which have been examined in blogs on this site here and here.  I am told by various civil service contacts that Lapsley is a thoroughly decent and likeable chap – and that the removal and loss of the secret papers was nothing more than an unfortunate oversight by a hardworking official.  The difficulty is that Lapsley was in clear breach of any number of rules – and was arguably committing a serious offence under criminal law.  And yet, there was no hue and cry, Lapsley did not lose his job – and has now been quietly appointed to a senior NATO post in Brussels.  The sense that double standards are being applied by the civil service in their approach to the investigation of themselves and  their elected political masters is growing by the day – and throws issues I raised in an early January article about civil service weakness and the need for reform into starker relief.  Bottom line: politicians are accountable to the electorate but, it seems, senior civil servants are accountable to no one.

So, can the Cabinet Office please explain to all of us how it ensures that it follows due process in launching investigations into politicians and civil servants?  And, in particular, how it ensures that there are no conflicts of interest?  Because, from the outside, our system is beginning to look no better than many ramshackle, corrupt jurisdictions I have had the pleasure of monitoring over the past 40 or so years.

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About the author

Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1982-2011. During his time in the FCO, he served overseas in Kuala Lumpur, Damascus, Maputo, Bogota and Baghdad. He is a founding partner of the Mayfair-based advisory firm Herminius. Nick also serves as a local town Councillor in Sevenoaks and as a gliding instructor.