Acquitted but sacked

The row over the Transport Secretary Steve Byers’s attempt to get rid of Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith (politically appointed Special Adviser and professional civil servant respectively) seems a long time ago already, but it still has some resonance. One feature has received less attention than it should: the fact that neither Moore nor Sixsmith had actually done anything wrong or improper at the time when they received their instructions to resign: nor has anyone suggested that they had. More than six months ago Moore certainly behaved indiscreetly (by writing in an e-mail a suggestion that betrayed a degree of cynicism shared by legions of public relations officers, heads of information, bureaucrats and indeed politicians, which didn’t stop them throwing up their hands in fake horror in order to placate the tabloids): and at about the same time she behaved improperly (by ordering a neutral civil servant—not Sixsmith—to run a politically partisan smear campaign against the American head of Mayor Livingstone’s London transport organisation, and having the civil servant moved to a lesser position when he refused): but ministers from the prime minister downwards, and the permanent head of Byers’s department, concluded that neither of these offences merited dismissal, and Moore got off with a reprimand. There’s no suggestion that she has subsequently repeated her objectionable behaviour in any way. As for Sixsmith, there seems to be no charge against him of any kind, apart from his action in taking his case to the Sunday Times after his civil service boss had given the Financial Times a full briefing on the whole resignation saga—but that was after he had been told to resign, not a prior ground for requiring resignation. The sole reasons for the decision to get rid of the two officials seem to have been that Moore and Sixsmith didn’t get on, Moore was under continued criticism from the media for her actions of six months beforehand, and Byers, their minister, was also under strong media and parliamentary attack on a host of fronts, including his apparent determination to hang onto Moore. The intention was clearly to relieve the pressure on Byers by making him sacrifice Moore: and he wasn’t willing to sacrifice Moore unless her enemy, Sixsmith, went too.

Altogether an unappetising brew. But it set ringing equally sordid echoes of another forced resignation: that of Peter Mandelson, a then Cabinet minister and close friend and adviser to Blair, accused by the media of using his ministerial position to try to get a favourable decision on the passport applications of a pair of Asian brothers who were offering a financial contribution towards the Millennium Dome (for which, among other things, Mandelson had had ministerial responsibility). It rapidly became clear that there had been nothing remotely improper about the enquiry Mandelson had made, or caused to be made, about progress in processing the passport applications, and indeed even the Home Office junior minister to whose office the enquiry had been addressed, one O’Brien, confirmed that there had been nothing improper about it. The ensuing argument then revolved around the wholly insignificant question whether Mandelson had made a telephone call directly to O’Brien (as O’Brien claimed to remember him doing, although no record of such a call has ever been found) or whether it had been made on Mandelson’s instructions by his officials (as Mandelson believed, and as the few available documents seemed to confirm). The media became violently excited over this issue; the prime minister’s rapid response was to call in Mandelson and require his resignation, while publicly acknowledging that he had behaved with total propriety at all times. Another sacrifice to the ravening wolves of the British tabloids and their more staid but equally malicious broadsheet brothers! For unexplained reasons, Mandelson’s behaviour, although not the object of any accusations, was then subjected to an official enquiry by a not particularly eminent barrister who concluded that Mandelson had done nothing improper but had probably made the disputed telephone call to O’Brien even though he had clearly ‘forgotten’ having done so. Weirdly, this exoneration of Mandelson did him no good, since he had been made to resign before the enquiry rather than after, or in the light of, its outcome, an odd reversal of the usual procedure by which verdict generally precedes sentence, rather than the other way about. And there has been a curious postscript to this sorry chronicle. Mandelson recently found some official papers in a briefcase which he felt confirmed his recollection that he had not made the disputed telephone call to O’Brien. The not particularly eminent barrister was reinstalled to hold a further enquiry, but after scrutinising the new evidence concluded that he had no reason to change his mind about the probability, on balance, that Mandelson had made the telephone call, although he repeated that there had been nothing improper about it. Thus Mandelson, acquitted by the first enquiry but already sacked and not later reinstated, appealed against his own acquittal only to have it reaffirmed. But he still hasn’t been restored to government office: not, obviously, because had done anything wrong, but because he had made powerful enemies in the Cabinet, the Labour Party, Number 10 and the media, and Mr Blair has not been willing to face them down or to stand by his old friend and mentor. It will be interesting to see who is the next minister or official required to terminate his or her career for having done nothing wrong.