There's a charming picture from a black tie dinner hosted by the lobbying organization the British American Business Association (BABA) in Washington in 2004 to welcome Tony Blair's former advisor Sir David Manning as ambassador to the US. The dinner was sponsored by arms company Lockheed Martin and, in the image Donald Neese, Lockheed's director of Western Europe is grinning at Manning and introducing him to John Warner, then senator for Virginia where Lockheed Martin has its HQ.
When I look at this photo I wonder what kind of grin it is. Is it saying, 'Great doing business with you on the Lockheed/BAE Systems Joint Strike Fighter jet arms deal that you helped us put together when you were Tony's right hand man.' Or is it saying, 'Great to have you on board as an advisor to the BABA, really looking forward to getting some useful arms-related policy information out of you that might make my gazillion-dollar arms company even more money than it already doesn't need.'
The answer is that I don't know. The more cynical/paranoid among you might be imagining all sorts of conflict of interest and inside dealings. Thankfully there is a body that exists to calm our more conspiratorial fantasies with regard to the revolving door between business and government. It's called The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, or ACOBA, and when former ministers, senior civil servants and other Crown servants leave office it tells them what they must do to not break the Business Appointment Rules. The problem is it's about as effective as the 'drink responsibly' warnings at the end of a hard liquor advert.
ACOBA has no power to enforce these rules or even do any due diligence on whether they've been broken. It was for this reason that when Manning assured ACOBA that he had no official dealings with Lockheed Martin in the last two years of his crown service and had no involvement in any decisions affecting Lockheed Martin they believed him no questions asked.
Strange then that in BABA's Feb 2007 newsletter, just a year before Manning took up his position at Lockheed, there's another snap of him and his chum Donald Neese. At this event - black tie again of course - Neese makes a speech enthusing about the close relationship between BABA and the British Embassy. The newsletter goes onto gloat about how effective BABA has been at formulating government policy with the help of Manning.
In 2010 I began sending Freedom of Information requests to ACOBA regarding Sir David's relationship with Lockheed. Though toothless I imagined ACOBA would at least be cooperative to someone enquiring about potential abuse of the system they are supposed to police. However, ACOBA tried to block my FOI request with the excuse that releasing the information would discourage crown servants from being totally honest with them in the future. It was the equivalent of ACOBA saying, "trust us", a phrase always guaranteed to inspire suspicion.
I had to go to the Information Commissioner's Office to appeal their decision. The ICO agreed with me and ACOBA were forced to release the info regarding Manning and Lockheed, but ACOBA tried to frustrate my inquiry further by paraphrasing the information in the original documents rather than just releasing the actual papers to me. I had to go back to the ICO again and eventually the original papers were released.
When the information did eventually arrive it was accompanied by personal assurances from Sir David himself claiming that although he did meet with senior Lockheed execs within the last two years of his crown services, they don't count as a breach of the ACOBA rules because these meetings were with employees of the US subsidiary not the UK one which he now works for. Oh so that's alright then.
Manning was also at pains to reassure me that although he gave "political advice" to the government on the handling of the Joint Strike Fighter contract, he "had no involvement in any decisions affecting Lockheed Martin." So basically he gave advice but no one listened. So that's alright then too.
After the recent 'jobs-for-generals' expose by the Sunday Times, ACOBA was quick to state how seriously it was taking the allegations. But if it takes allegations like these so seriously why did it kick and squirm so much when I tried to shine a little light on Manning's affairs. It seems strange that a public body whose job it is to instill public trust in crown servants demonstrates such a lack of transparency.