February 2, 2014 10:13 pm

Coalition cronyism dispute intensifies

Cameron and Clegg©AFP

Downing Street dismissed accusations of political cronyism last night amid a deepening coalition dispute over Conservative education secretary Michael Gove’s decision to remove a Labour peer from her post as chair of the schools watchdog.

It emerged over the weekend that Baroness Sally Morgan, a former aide to Tony Blair, would not have her contract as Ofsted chair renewed and that a successor was being sought. Mr Gove’s preference is widely considered to be Tory donor Theodore Agnew.

Lady Morgan said she was the victim of a “determined effort from Number 10” to appoint more Tories in public roles. The recent removal of Labour-affiliated figures has included Liz Forgan former chair of the Arts Council, and Dame Suzi Leather, previously chair of the Charity Commission. She was replaced by William Shawcross, a Tory supporter, and late last year Patricia Hodgson, a former Tory candidate, was confirmed as new head of the communications watchdog Ofcom.

Lib Dem schools minister David Laws hit out against his boss, protesting that Mr Gove was guilty of trying to get his “own people” into Ofsted, but a senior Tory official retaliated. “We know what they are doing, trying to differentiate and show relevance. We are just getting on with running the country,” the official told the Financial Times.

As the dispute threatened to derail a planned focus on education policy this week, including announcements on enforcing discipline and bringing in a longer school day, Mr Gove denied suggestions of behind-the-scenes politicisation.

“From time to time you need to refresh the person who is head of a particular public body in order to bring a new pair of eyes to bear,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “I think the only pattern you can see is appointment on merit and a desire to make sure that we’ve got tough and tenacious figures to concentrate on improving the education system.”

When asked whether Mr Agnew – currently a non-executive director in the Department for Education – was a contender for the role, Mr Gove said: “I think that would be quite wrong for me to rule anyone out”.

However, other Tories were less cautious. Nick de Bois, a backbencher, said the idea that his party was packing affiliates into key jobs was “ridiculous”, but added “so what if we are?”

“Look, there’s lots of people with good talents out there and I have no problem if a government that’s elected with firm views and ideas about what it wants to do – in this case in education – puts people in place with talent that happen to be Conservative supporters,” Mr de Bois told the BBC.

One observer suggested that increasing attempts to appoint Tories to key posts could be a sign of ministers seeking to speed their reforms as the election approached.

“Politicians could well be thinking in terms of their legacy and time running out,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “If they think they haven’t made the progress they want to, then [appointing supporters] might be a way of accelerating that,” Prof Bale said.

In other countries, such as the US, governments routinely appoint donors or affiliates to key roles including ambassadorships. But the coalition’s moves to increase the accountability of famously impartial civil servants – by allowing ministers directly to appoint larger numbers to their private offices and giving them a bigger say in the appointment of permanent secretaries – have led to accusations of politicisation.

Sir David Normington, head of the civil service commission, last month made clear that it would resist a proposal to allow the prime minister to have the final say in picking permanent secretaries .

Lord Hennessy, an authority on Whitehall who sits as a crossbencher in the Lords, warned that if it appeared that appointments to “quangoland” and the senior civil service were political, then an incoming administration would seek to replace incumbents with their own appointees. “They might say we are doing this with great regret but they are their people, we must have our people,” he added.

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