Gove risks new Whitehall row over choice of DEFRA directors
1 March 2018, 21:27
The Environment Secretary Michael Gove risks reigniting a row over his approach to Whitehall impartiality by lining up a group of close allies to join the board of his department.
Sky News has learnt that Mr Gove's ministry will announce in the coming days that Ben Goldsmith, a businessman and brother of the former Conservative London mayoral candidate Zac, is to be one of five new non-executive directors.
The appointments will also include Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the fast-food restaurant chain Leon, and Lizzie Noel, a former board member of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) during Mr Gove's tenure there as Secretary of State.
Ms Noel was also an adviser at the Department for Education, again while Mr Gove was in charge, and also advised Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, during his first term as Mayor of London.
Sources said the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) could name its new non-executive directors as early as Friday.
They will come three months after Sky News revealed that Steve Holliday, the former boss of National Grid, quit as DEFRA's senior non-executive after Mr Gove demanded that he commit several days a week to the supposedly part-time role.
It was the latest such clash involving Mr Gove, who has repeatedly been accused of packing the departments' boards with close associates who were subsequently handed peerages or knighthoods.
The other new non-executives who will join DEFRA are Colin Day, the former boss of manufacturer Essentra, and Elizabeth Buchanan, a former press secretary to Lady Thatcher after her decade as Prime Minister.
Mr Holliday's role as DEFRA's lead non-executive will be taken on by Mr Dimbleby, according to insiders, although it was unclear whether Mr Gove was still seeking an extensive time commitment from the new directors.
The resignation of Mr Holliday raised eyebrows in Whitehall because of his reputation as one of the Government's trouble-shooters from the corporate sector.
He is leading an independent review of an expensive debacle at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and a new project to examine full-time social action among young people.
Sources have previously described Mr Gove's approach to supposedly independent directors as an extension of Government ministers' network of special advisers.
One Whitehall insider pointed out that the board roles were meant to be appointed by secretaries of state, and were not civil service posts.
However, Mr Gove is the only Cabinet minister to have repeatedly prompted concern in this way.
During his time as Justice Secretary, Mr Gove effectively sacked a quartet of non-executives who included Tim Breedon, the former chief executive of Legal & General, and Dame Sue Street, a former permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
One of those appointed to the MoJ board was Sir Theodore Agnew, who had also been a non-executive director of the Department for Education (DfE) during Mr Gove's tenure there.
Sir Theodore was appointed as an education minister in the House of Lords in September.
Dozens of figures from the worlds of business were recruited to Whitehall boards in 2010 as part of a project orchestrated by Lord Maude, the then Cabinet Office minister, to improve their governance and operational efficiency.
Lord Browne, the former boss of BP, was recruited as the Government's first lead non-executive director working across Whitehall.
He was replaced by Sir Ian Cheshire, the chairman of Debenhams, in 2015.
A DEFRA spokesman refused to comment on individuals but said it expected to announce the appointment of new non-executives "shortly".
(c) Sky News 2018: Gove risks new Whitehall row over choice of DEFRA directors