openDemocracyUK: Analysis

Johnson continues his war on Whitehall with new nomination for powerful job

William Shawcross is just the British government’s latest replacement for an inconveniently independent public servant

Seth Thévoz close-up
Seth Thévoz
25 July 2021, 10.00am
William Shawcross: singing from the same hymn sheet?
Dominic Lipinski/PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

This week the government quietly announced its preferred candidate for the top Whitehall post of Commissioner for Public Appointments: an ideological ally who has been accused of right-wing, anti-Muslim bias in a previous job.

If the nomination is confirmed, then William Shawcross will hold one of the most powerful roles in the British state. The Commissioner for Public Appointments oversees the allocation of senior jobs in over 300 agencies and quangos across government, including in areas such as defence, health and social care.

Of course, many leaders want to surround themselves with officials who share their outlook. But Boris Johnson’s determination to remove possible dissenters is unprecedented.

‘Intimidation’ alleged

Shawcross was chair of the Charity Commission for England and Wales from 2012 to 2018, during which time he was accused of bias against non-Conservative and Islamic groups.

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The commission oversaw the implementation of a 2014 law that was supposed to regulate lobbying – but which heavily restricted charities from taking public policy stances during elections and referendums, while leaving commercial lobbyists largely unaffected.

17 organisations threatened to boycott a review of the government’s anti-terrorism Prevent scheme, led by Shawcross

openDemocracy has spoken to several charity workers, including a former chief executive, who all felt that they were ‘muzzled’ during the 2016 Brexit referendum, after receiving formal letters from the commission limiting their ability to speak out. Charities told The Lancet at the time that they felt “intimidation” from the commission.

Earlier that year Shawcross had dismissed allegations of bias, saying: “My personal opinions… are not relevant to the commission’s regulatory position.”

This year, 17 organisations, including Liberty, Amnesty International and the Runnymede Trust, threatened to boycott a review of the government’s anti-terrorism Prevent scheme, led by Shawcross, over concerns that his stint at the Charity Commission had seen a disproportionate focus on Muslim charities.

Where he’s coming from

Whatever the truth of the allegations of bias, there is little ambiguity about Shawcross’ political leanings. Like the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, who announced his nomination this week, he is a former director of the Henry Jackson Society, a neo-conservative think tank.

Since leaving the Charity Commission, he has also been a senior fellow of the conservative think-tank Policy Exchange.

In 2010 he wrote an article attacking “Labour’s immigration free-for-all”, suggesting there had been “a deliberate policy ‘to dilute Britishness’” and that “the only force of which Labour (like most E.U. ruling parties) seems to be in awe is Islamism”.

Hit list

By contrast, the outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments is Peter Riddell, a respected former journalist and director of the Institute for Government known for his impartiality. Shawcross’s nomination is part of a wider pattern under this government, where independent-minded public servants have been replaced with less threatening figures.

In February 2020, a leaked ‘hit list’ identified three Whitehall department heads whom the government was seeking to remove. Two of the three – Philip Rutnam at the Home Office and Simon McDonald at the Foreign Office – have since resigned in reportedly acrimonious circumstances.

Other senior civil servants who quit rather than being retired or transferred were the Ministry of Justice’s Richard Heaton, in August 2020, and Jonathan Slater at the Department for Education, who was sacked by Boris Johnson the same month, in a row about A-Levels.

The prime minister’s ethics advisor, long-serving mandarin Alex Allen, was given little choice but to resign in November 2020 when Johnson ignored his advice that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, be sacked over bullying allegations. The role remained unfilled for five months, and was eventually filled by the Queen’s former private secretary, Lord Geidt.

The biggest scalp of all, though, has been Mark Sedwill, who was replaced as Cabinet Secretary, head of the civil service and national security adviser last September, after rifts with the prime minister developed.

The prime minister announced that he was appointing an old Bullingdon Club friend to the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Sedwill’s successor is 41-year-old Simon Case. The youngest Cabinet Secretary in 101 years, this former private secretary to Prince William has been called “terminally weak”, and unable to stand up to the prime minister.

Aside from Shawcross, another controversy looms with the appointment of a new Information Commissioner. The outgoing commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has held far-reaching investigations into the use of data by all major political parties. Her office is also conducting two investigations into disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock.

A pre-appointment hearing before Parliament this week had to be postponed after the government failed to name a nominee. Conservative MP Julian Knight, who chairs the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, accused the government of “mishandling” the process.

And in a surprising move, the prime minister announced last week that he was appointing an old Bullingdon Club friend from his Oxford University days, the lawyer Ewen Fergusson, to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which oversees the government ethics regime.

War on Whitehall

All this suggests an increasingly adversarial environment in Whitehall. Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser, made little secret of his long-held ambition to destroy what he sees as the civil service’s outdated structures.

Cummings may have gone, but the government he helped form lives on. One retired senior civil servant, speaking on condition of anonymity, told openDemocracy: “This government sees the entire British state as a nest of Remainers that needs to be destroyed. And it sees everyone as the enemy: especially the civil service [and] the courts.”

In 2020, Gove delivered a speech in which he set out the government’s view of perceived shortcomings in the civil service. “For many decades now we have neglected to ensure the civil service has all the basic skills required,” he said. “There are a limited number, even in the senior civil service, who have qualifications or expertise in mathematical, statistical and probability questions.”

Gove continued: “Too much current civil service training is about vapid abstractions such as ‘collaborating better’ rather than about what works in classroom instruction or how to interrogate climate modelling.”

It is not unheard of for prime ministers to try to replace civil servants with more sympathetic nominations. Margaret Thatcher would famously ask of key appointees: “Is he one of us?” Tony Blair, taking office after 18 years of Conservative government, was dogged by accusations of ‘Tony’s cronies’.

Nonetheless, these tended to be the excesses of late Thatcher and late Blair; the scale and pace of the current government’s assault on Whitehall is unprecedented.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "The government is confident that William Shawcross has the skills and experience to perform the role of independent regulator effectively and that is why he has been put forward for pre-appointment scrutiny by the select committee.

“He has been through an open and fair appointments process and his previous role as chair of the Charity Commission demonstrates his commitment to diversity in the broadest sense."

William Shawcross did not respond to a request to his representatives for comment.

Contacted by openDemocracy, outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments Peter Riddell pointed to his existing statements on public appointments on the commissioner’s website and in evidence to the recent inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

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