Last week, Sunak faced a difficult conundrum. His hand had been forced by the ever-more-extreme Suella Braverman and, faced with internal and external pressure, he felt that he had no option but to become the second PM to sack her in little over a year.
Sunak was then forced into a Cabinet reshuffle in which he replaced Braverman with Cleverly and needed to find a new Foreign Secretary to replace Cleverly. Rather than choose one of his MPs, as might have been expected, Sunak chose to appoint former Prime Minister David Cameron. In order to do this, he had to make Cameron a Lord.
This raises two important constitutional questions:
- How will Cameron be held accountable?
- Is he a fit and proper person?
How will Cameron be accountable?
As a member of the House of Lords, not the House of Commons, Cameron will be largely immune from scrutiny from what is meant to be the UK’s principal body for making laws and scrutinising government policies.
As Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said:
“This is not the first time in recent years that a cabinet minister has been appointed in the House of Lords. But given the gravity of the current international situation, it is especially important that this House is able to scrutinise the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office effectively.“
Hoyle has said he “will do everything” he can to ensure that MPs can apply proper scrutiny – but it is not clear what he can do that will be effective.
Is Cameron a fit and proper person?
The UK has – at least in theory – a safeguard to ensure that only fit and proper people are appointed to the Lords: the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The second of the Commission’s stated objectives is to vet nominations for life peers, including those nominated by the UK political parties, to ensure the highest standards of propriety. This role extends to vetting potential candidates recommended by the Prime Minister:
“Since the 2010 General Election, the Commission has been asked to vet for propriety individuals upon whom the Prime Minister wishes to confer a peerage in order that they might sit in the House of Lords to take up a ministerial role. … Although the Commission recognises that time pressure is often a factor in these cases, it will carry out vetting in the same way as outlined above.”
The Commission’s website prominently features the “Seven Principles of Public Life” so it is reasonable to assume that in assessing propriety of a given appointment, they take these into account.
|Principle||Requirement||How Does Cameron Stack up?|
|Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.
|At least two major issues deserve further investigation:
Greensill Capital – for which he was a paid adviser and received £ millions in payments. According to the BBC, “Mr Cameron sent 56 messages lobbying ministers and senior civil servants. He wanted the Bank of England to invest more than £10bn of taxpayers’ money in Greensill’s loans.”
Illumina – for which he was a paid adviser and helped the firm win a £123 million contract from the government.
|Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.
|Cameron has until recently had links with China Investment Corporation. As Anneliese Dodds wrote to Sunak,
“The British public will, quite rightly, want to know that the foreign secretary is solely dedicated to representing Britain on the world stage, not promoting his own private interests. It further raises concerns about potential conflicts of interest if the foreign secretary has been in negotiations with a foreign government about funding a project from which he would have personally profited.”
|In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for awards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.
|While he was Prime Minister, Cameron took the – even at the time – controversial decision to award critical contracts for the UK’s 5G communications network to Huawei, China’s state-owned communications company.
His decision was subsequently reversed on security grounds.
|Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.||As The National reports, “Calls for Lords reform as David Cameron to dodge Commons grillings”|
|Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
|Even the Daily Telegraph reported, “David Cameron refuses to disclose ‘generous’ amount he was paid by Greensill Capital”|
|Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
|The UK operates a fiat currency system in which the government can – and did during Cameron’s tenure as PM, via the Bank of England – create large amounts of money out of nothing when it wishes to do so. That is a matter of fact.
And yet Cameron repeatedly claimed in the House and outside that “there is no magic money tree.”
This claim, which was a key justification for his destructive policy of austerity, is a fundamentally dishonest description of the UK’s economic system – a critically important issue for any PM to be honest about.
|Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.
|Having allowed an advisory referendum on Brexit – subject to lower levels of regulation precisely because it is not binding – Cameron agreed to be bound by the results, then led the failed Remain campaign and, when it failed, simply resigned rather than attempting to mitigate the damage Brexit would inevitably do.
That is not leadership.
While it is clear that the Commission was under extreme pressure to approve Cameron’s appointment quickly and, as they point out, “The Commission does not have a right of veto; it is down to the Prime Minister to decide whether to recommend an individual to His Majesty The King” it seems as though the Commission may have allowed itself to be used as a rubber stamp, giving credibility to an appointment which appears to fail most of the tests for propriety in public life.
If this concerns you, and you would like to see much more stringent application of the seven principles in public life, take a look at The 99% Organisation and join us.
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