The Centre for Public Appointments says: “A public appointment is generally a ministerial appointment to the board of a public body or advisory committee.”

The Commissioner for Public Appointments says: “My role as a regulator is to ensure that the best people get appointed to public bodies free of personal and political patronage.”

Those two sentences nicely frame the tensions between Ministers and civil servants over who makes appointments to quangos.

Yes, these should be made on merit – and candidates from “the widest range of backgrounds”, as the Centre puts it, should be encouraged to apply.  (“The Government has an aspiration that half of all new appointees are women.”)

But no, the civil service does not make the appointments – and nor should it do so, since civil servants are not elected and Ministers are.  These are, as the Centre says, ministerial appointments.  This was explicitly reaffirmed by the Nolan Commission, which established the Commissioner.

In other words, Ministers not only do but must exercise patronage when it comes to appointments – that’s to say, patronage in the real sense of the word: “the power to control appointments to office”.  But some report that not Ministers but Sir Humphrey is actually in control.

“The civil service has all sorts of dodges up its sleeve,” one source told me.  “For example, rushing Ministers into signing off “temporary appointments” – and then waiting until the Minister in question has moved on to make their man a permanent fixture.”

Another, straight out of Yes Minister, is for civil servants on appointment panels to argue that some candidates have no experience of public appointments – “which, of course, they can’t gain without winning a public appointment in the first place,” the source said.

According to other sources, the Commissioner, Sir David Normington (a former civil servant), oversteps the mark when it comes to challenging Ministerial appointments.  If so, this is scarcely his fault – after all, how can the mark be clear when the system is unclear about what patronage actually is?

Since 2010, there have been complaints from the centre-right – Matthew Elliott at Business for Britain led the charge – that when it comes to appointments the Left benefits at the Right’s expense: that conservatives, with both a big and small C, lose out when it comes to appointments.

The long and short of it is that Downing Street didn’t get a grip on them until roughly halfway through the last Parliament.  From that point on, the balance of appointees declaring a political affiliation improved from a Conservative point of view.

A huge slice of the credit goes to Francis Maude who, as Cabinet Office Minister, took his responsibility for overseeing the whole appointments process very seriously.  And at Downing Street, Laura Wyld heads the Prime Minister’s Appointments Unit.

All this needs putting in perspective.  Under ten per cent of all appointees in 2013 declared party political activity at all.  And a big slice of appointments are local ones: for example, Labour has a history of doing well out of places on health authority boards.

However, the basis on which figures are compiled changes from time to time, so comparisons are tricky.  (Judicial appointments became part of the count in 2013.)  Furthermore, the essence of the problem isn’t that the system works for Labour: it’s that it works for Sir Humphrey.

This isn’t bad simply for Conservatives who don’t gain appointments for which they are suited.  It’s harmful to the system itself, because candidates from outside the civil service-flavoured magic circle find it hard to break into it.  “Too many Blair-era corporate businessmen,” a source told me.

The new Government has four main means of reappraising and improving appointments.

  • Ministers themselves. It’s no use some complaining that the civil service has an untoward grip of appointments if others – or they themselves – don’t take them seriously, look for suitable candidates, and question recommendations when they think it right to do so.  Michael Gove, Eric Pickles, Maude himself: all took a special interest in appointments.  The newly-appointed and re-appointed Ministers should make a resolution to follow their example.
  • The Whips.  Conservatives shouldn’t be appointed to posts simply because they are Conservatives (heaven forbid).  But the Chief Whip, working with the Party Chairman, should be keeping a look-out for Party members or supporters who have an interest and expertise in particular areas of public policy – and may never have thought about applying for an appointment at all.  This point has not been lost on the Whips’ Office in the recent past.
  • Matthew Hancock.  As Maude’s successor at the Cabinet Office, Hancock takes over his responsibilities.  These include responding in due course to the recommendations of the review set up by Maude of the work of the Commissioner himself just before the General Election.  This will be chaired by Sir Gerry Grimstone, and will “establish the continuing need for the Office, and… examine its scope of responsibilities.”
  • Downing Street. Over at the Spectator yesterday, James Forsyth reported the post-elected Number 10 shake-up.  Ed Llewellyn stays as Chief of Staff.  Craig Oliver and Kate Fall are his deputies. Ameet Gill is the new Director of Stategy. Camilla Cavendish will run the Policy Unit.  But who in the new set-up will carry on the good work of Oliver Dowden – now translated to the Commons – who as Deputy Chief of Staff took a special interest in appointments?

If Llewellyn is to be busy with the EU renegotiation, this means that some of his Chief of Staff responsibilities will be taken up by others.  If they include his deputies (as will be the case), they will have less time for other matters, including appointments.  Stephen Gilbert, David Cameron’s Political Secretary, is essentially a campaigning specialist (and a first-rate one) – who has now been promoted to become a Party Vice-Chairman, I hear.  There is a bit of a gap where the Political Secretary should be; his or her role would include keeping an eye on appointments.

A footnote.  The right of Ministers to make appointments should not be absolute. They should sometimes be challenged – even overruled.  But the people who do the overruling should be MPs, who we elect – not civil servants, who we don’t.