Baroness Stuart’s crucial role in EU Referendum controversies should rule her out of a top position demanding impartiality and integrity, says former Labour MP Ian Lucas

Civil servants have rarely been so prominent in public life. ‘Partygate’ has led to backroom staff becoming front page news. The British tradition of an independent Civil Service, serving governments of any colour, is one of the fundamental pillars of our democracy. Like so much under Boris Johnson, it is under threat.

The Civil Service Commission is established “to ensure that civil service appointments are made on the basis of merit, through fair and open competition and to protect civil service impartiality”.

The First Civil Service Commissioner is “the public face of the Commission” and is required, according to the application pack for the job, to “uphold the values of the civil service – honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality – and the principles of selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition”.

Why, then, does Johnson want Gisela Stuart in the job?

Baroness Stuart, as she has come to be known since Johnson installed her in the House of Lords in 2020, is one of the Prime Minister’s closest allies. A former Labour MP, she was an essential prop in the Vote Leave team, providing support to a mainly Conservative operation.

It is this seeming lack of objectivity and impartiality – her closeness to the man at the top of government – which has raised eyebrows.

In an inadequate report approving Baroness Stuart’s proposed appointment as First Civil Service Commissioner, Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee was compelled to observe that “reservations were expressed about her suitability for the role and, in particular, her perceived impartiality”.

Labour Leader Keir Starmer has subsequently written to the Cabinet Office, raising “questions over whether [Baroness Stuart] is in a position to provide advice that is independent, impartial and objective”. 

“She is closely connected to the current Government and has campaigned with many of them on important political matters that are still relevant to the challenges faced by departments,” he said.

While Starmer focused on Stuart’s lack of impartiality, Electoral Commission documents referred to publicly in my book, Digital Gangsters, for the first time disclose evidence suggesting that Baroness Stuart personally approved the £400,000 payment by Vote Leave to (its offshoot campaign group) BeLeave during the 2016 EU Referendum – breaching spending limits put in place to maintain fairness in the campaign.

Baroness Stuart was a key member of Vote Leave, with Electoral Commission documents showing that she was a member of its finance committee. She was one of just a few individuals to be consulted on whether the payment should be made by Vote Leave.

She is recorded in minutes as attending a Vote Leave finance meeting on 14 June 2016, which include the statement: “It was agreed that an initial amount be given to BeLeave of £400,000 and that subsequent amounts might be given subject to the discretion of the executive with supervision”.

As Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director, wrote to the Electoral Commission in response to the watchdog’s enquiries into the BeLeave payment: “Gisela Stuart is the only MP that was involved in this decision as far as I can remember or I can see in the documents I have.”

As a result of its investigations, the Electoral Commission concluded that Vote Leave’s referendum spending was £7,449,079 – above the statutory spending limit of £7 million. It found on 17 July 2018: “We are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Vote Leave exceeded the spending limit for a designated lead campaigner.”

As a former MP, who accepted the result of the referendum in good faith and voted for Article 50 in March 2017, commencing the process of withdrawal, I am still angry about this breach of the law.

It was disclosed only in July 2018, two years after the referendum, and I believe it calls into question the honesty and integrity of those individuals who approved the payment. It is therefore astonishing that Baroness Stuart is being put forward for a crucial Civil Service position, despite her role in approving a payment that breached spending limits in the most important vote in modern UK history.

Aside from anything else, her appointment is simply one more example of Boris Johnson promoting fellow travellers to positions of influence whenever he can, whatever their past actions, in order to buttress his own self-interest.

Ian Lucas was Labour MP for Wrexham from 2001 to 2019, and a member of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee from 2017 to 2019, during its inquiry into disinformation and fake news

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