The Labour party is demanding that Michael Gove answer urgent questions over how a personal friend of Boris Johnson’s was chosen to sit on a sleaze watchdog – over three weeks after the appointment was made.
Ewen Fergusson, a former lawyer at top firm Herbert Smith Freehills, was chosen above 171 other candidates and then appointed to sit on the high-profile committee on standards in public life at the beginning of August.
Fergusson is a university friend of the prime minister’s, dating back to their days at Oxford when they were both members of elite dining society the Bullingdon club. They are pictured together in a now infamous snap in full formal attire taken in 1987.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader and shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, has written to Cabinet Office minister Gove demanding answers to key questions – including whether Fergusson was chosen by the prime minister himself and whether a declaration of their friendship was made.
Appointments to the committee are made by the prime minister on advice from Cabinet Office ministers such as Gove, who are in turn advised by an advisory assessment panel.
Rayner told HuffPost UK: “It’s a complete joke that Boris Johnson’s university chum will be marking the Tories’ homework on sleaze, and be paid taxpayers’ money to do so.
“The public deserve answers, and a truly independent commission to clean up this Conservative cronyism.
“The government must reveal how the shortlist was decided, which minister advised on the appointment, who confirmed it, and why the Bullingdon club connection hasn’t been declared.”
The committee advises the prime minister on the ethical standards public servants are required to uphold while promoting the principles of public life, including integrity, objectivity and accountability.
Non-political committee members such as Fergusson are entitled to claim up to £240 a day in expenses.
The governance code on public appointments states that ministers “should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends”.
It adds: “They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.”
In her letter, Rayner wrote: “Given that most of the committee’s members are appointed by ministers in the government of the day, it is especially incumbent on them to ensure that their appointments are beyond reproach so that the committee’s advice is, and is perceived to be, genuinely independent.
“Previous governments and prime ministers of all parties have taken care in making such appointments.
“The apparent inability of this prime minister to maintain basic standards of probity in public life is bringing the system into disrepute, and anything less than full transparency over this appointment will only make that worse.”
In July, the commissioner for public appointments, Peter Riddell, wrote to chair of the committee, Lord Evans, to say he was satisfied with the appointment of new members to the panel.
“I am satisfied that the panel was properly constituted and examined the merits of the nine shortlisted candidates in a manner consistent with the government’s governance code,” he wrote, adding: “Candidates were asked questions in a consistent and fair manner and relevant factors of experience and background were taken into account.”
A government spokesperson said: “Mr Fergusson applied through open and fair competition, in line with the governance code for public appointments.
“His application was carefully considered on its merits by the advisory assessment panel, chaired by Lord Evans, which interviewed him and found that he was suitable for appointment.”