Ministers are inserting a slew of Conservative allies into senior Whitehall roles as they continue their assault on the civil service establishment.
Departmental boards were introduced in 2010 to bring in “independent” non-executive directors who could “fundamentally transform the way government operates, scrutinising decisions and sharpening accountability”.
According to the government’s own documents, non-executive board members are recruited through “fair and transparent competition”, and are supposed to come “primarily from the commercial private sector, with experience of managing complex organisations”.
However, recently ministers have appointed a number of former special advisers to the positions, which carry an average salary of £15,000 per year.
Last week Boris Johnson appointed Lord Nash as the government’s lead non-executive director, meaning that four out of the five appointees to the Cabinet Office’s board this year are former colleagues of Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister.
Lord Nash, who donated £3,250 to Mr Gove’s failed leadership campaign in 2016 and has given more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party, will join Henry de Zoete, Gisela Stuart and Baroness Finn on the board.
Mr De Zoete was an adviser to Mr Gove at the Department for Education (DfE) and worked with him and Mrs Stuart on the Vote Leave campaign. Lady Finn is a Tory peer who previously served as a special adviser in the Cabinet Office. She attended Oxford University at the same time as Mr Gove.
This pattern of recruiting former political advisers is not unique to the Cabinet Office. In April, Theresa May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy was made a non-executive director at the DfE. Last month the Department for Work and Pensions appointed Eleanor Shawcross, a former adviser to George Osborne, and Rachel Wolf, the co-author of last year’s Conservative manifesto, to its departmental board.
Non-executive directors are appointed by secretaries of state. As foreign secretary, Mr Johnson made Sir Edward Lister, now his chief of staff, a Foreign Office non-executive director.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “The government’s own rules state that these roles must be filled through ‘fair and open competition’. At a time when public trust in government is more important than ever, this government should be wary of creating the impression that such appointments are made with anything other than ability to do the job in mind.”
Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government, said that the competition for non-executive roles was “opaque” and that few people believed that appointments were “solely the product of a bureaucratic sifting exercise”.
In a statement the Cabinet Office said: “Government guidance states that the appointment of lead non-executive board members will be on the approval of the prime minister, following the principle of selection-based on merit.
“Lord Nash has extensive experience in business and in government, for example as a non-executive director at the Department for Education, and so is well placed to help the government deliver its agenda.”