Lockdown – Reflections at the end of week 56

Shortly after I finished last week’s ramblings came the news of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. Commentary on him, his life, his significance in the development of our constitutional monarchy and the impact and implications of him no longer being with us have dominated the news media since and I can add nothing further to it other than to acknowledge his passing and its significance to both his family and the nation at the end of a long and significant life.

Elsewhere there has been a diversity of news, some of it below the radar in the light of other events, and some of it very visible. As China’s economy is reported to have leapt, the UK economy has performed another gentle hop, having grown by 0.4% in February. Exports to the EU also grew by 46.6% in the month as the immediate impact of Brexit fell away. There is some way to go. The economy remains 7.8% down on February 2020, and exports to the EU are still behind pre-Brexit levels.  There will be further change as lockdown measures are released although predicting them with any certainty remains more of an art and less of a science than economists would like.

There have been some diversions as well. Rachael Blackmore followed her highly successful Cheltenham Festival by becoming the first woman to ride the winner in the Grand National. Whatever your feelings are about horse racing, this marks the breaking of another glass ceiling and must be welcome.  As a man who has bought many a Colin the Caterpillar cake for his children’s birthdays over the years, M&S’s reported legal action against Aldi over its Cuthbert the Caterpillar has caught the eye. Elsewhere, the owners of the Matchbox brand have announced not only that they will be producing a range of replica cars based on current electric models, but they will be doing so using a high percentage of recycled materials. And the arguments over the Ever Given have hotted up, with a court order being made for the ship to be held as substantial claims, including one for around £666m from the Suez Canal Authority, are pursued.

If there has been a dominant story away from the Royal Family, it has been the growing of an early rumbling about lobbying into a full blown row. In announcing its own inquiry, rather than a more formal process, the government has come under criticism. The man named to head up the inquiry is one of the most highly respected corporate lawyers of his generation, so it feels that the more valid criticism is over the limited scope of the enquiry. Concern has been expressed that the limited scope will inevitably reduce damage to the government. Others have suggested that the situation is seen as an opportunity for the current regime to distance themselves to commit a former prime minister to the political wilderness forever. Parliament itself has weighed in with the Treasury Select Committee announcing its own inquiry, although there will inevitably be pressure on Conservative members of the committee not to inflict significant damage on their own party.

It has been an interesting development during my lifetime that a political career has become such a platform for future earnings. In the mid 70's, the attorney general went to court against the publishers Jonathan Cape to seek to prevent the publication of diaries written by Richard Crossman, a former cabinet minister. No such diaries had been published before. The case did not succeed, and we are now used to former prime ministers publishing their memoirs under book deals which include significant royalty advances. The information available at the moment suggests that David Cameron’s work for Greensill has, on the face of it, not broken any rules, although it doesn’t seem to tie in with an anti-paid lobbying speech which he made a number of years ago. Perhaps more surprising is that a senior civil servant did not seem to be obliged by anything to declare his involvement with Greensill whilst he was still on the public payroll. In the light of the whole affair, the small size of the office, led by Lord Pickles, which has a degree of oversight over public servants and business appointments, has come as a surprise.

The thing is snowballing and, with the news media looking for skeletons in cupboards with the enthusiasm of a hungry dog, further stories are emerging daily. In many respects, what’s really at stake here is not so much rules as ethics. The trouble with rules alone can be that they fail to adapt quickly enough to changing circumstances and they are also susceptible to analysis and application on a literal rather than a principled basis. Whilst David Cameron may not have broken any rules, he has engaged in a form of lobbying which none of his modern predecessors appears to have done, and the rules haven’t changed. No one would deny any former senior politician or senior civil servant the opportunity to earn a living after they leave office, but few would be happy with the idea of senior politicians so directly bringing to bear the influence, as opposed to the expertise and experience, which they gained in office. If those principles are not accepted, we must expect more incidents involving allegations of cronyism and, more importantly, a further erosion of trust in government.

All of which leads to the week’s oddest story. Remember that it’s the 16th April and not the 1st as one of the red tops have published a story this morning that Professor Chris Whitty is at the top of the producers’ wanted list for contestants on Strictly Come Dancing. I think that he’s rather busy at the moment so that neither the rules nor the ethics will be tested on that one.

Have a good weekend.

Ian Waine
Senior Partner