Is this the man to say 'No, minister'?

Sir Gordon Downey may find himself in a situation where the public interest demands nifty footwork and a willingness to scream
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The Independent Online
Sir Gordon Downey is a citizen beyond suspicion. He belongs to that elevated class, most of them former civil servants or judges, who have already got their Ks, which means they ought to be able to risk offending the powers that dispense gongs. They usually have their pensions, so there should be no financial incentives to be craven.

They also have another characteristic. They often lack personality - as the modern world tends to define it. Sir Gordon, say his friends, is an amusing bloke, but his public demeanour is grey; he does not play to the cameras and avoids the cut and thrust of debate.

Some might think that a virtue. But what if he now finds himself in a situation where what the public interest demands is voice, nifty footwork, maybe even a willingness to scream? The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards may have to shout loud enough to tell John Major that he is not going to get a reliable report inside three months let alone three weeks, to tell Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, that he needs two or more of the sharpest brains Whitehall can offer to help him wade through the mound of documents produced by the Hamilton affair, to tell Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith of the Procedures Committee that he needs crystal- clear terms of reference now and, even more important, a copper-bottom guarantee that the report is produced his way.

If Sir Gordon Downey plays true to form he may opt for silence. But going sotto voce about his staffing, about his task, about the very structure of the MPs' committee employing him could diminish his crucial role.

It is hard to hear ill of Sir Gordon as a man or a husband (his wife, now retired, has worked in both the state and private sectors as a teacher) and a father. His daughter is a solicitor who recently had a child and his son works for IBM. His career is - in Whitehall terms - not quite top rank but pretty distinguished none the less. He entered the Treasury in the Fifties and rose to the rank of deputy secretary, in the years when the Treasury thought it could (and did) manage a full-employment economy and do such forgotten things as industrial policy. In the Whitehall way he was tipped off that he would not make it to the top there, though a permanent secretaryship might come his way in a spending department.

Instead, after a spell in the Central Policy Review Staff, he walked into a job he had himself helped to create. He become Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), the public's chief financial watchdog, and head of the National Audit Office. On leaving the NAO in 1987, Sir Gordon went to Ernst and Young accountants, then to the City, becoming first chairman of Fimbra (the Financial Intermediaries, Managers and Brokers Regulatory Association) and then of the Personal Investment Authority. Voices were to be heard criticising his capacity to keep up with a fast- changing scene; others say he did move swiftly, for example to dispense with Fimbra's first chief executive. Sir Gordon has also acted as the readers' representative on The Independent.

The date Sir Gordon left the civil service is important if you believe - as many top officials of his generation do - that under Mrs Thatcher things ethical started to go adrift. It was that year that she sacked the head of the civil service, Sir Ian Bancroft. Since then Lord Bancroft has pushed the idea that civil servants are "ballast in the constitution"; they serve an interest higher than any individual set of government ministers. This means that confronted with wrongdoing they should be trusted to blow the whistle. The official theory remains that set out by Mrs Thatcher's replacement civil service head, Lord Armstrong, that civil servants obey their ministers enthusiastically and with no nonsense about higher obligations to the Crown or the public interest.

"Civil servants of our generation," said a contemporary of Sir Gordon yesterday, "can be relied upon for moral courage - which means saying no to ministers, or MPs if it comes to that. He is not going suddenly to turn round and become a wobbly jelly."

Independence of mind comes with the civil service job, as it was. In Sir Gordon's case this has been buttressed by his service as C&AG, a key role which involves blowing the whistle on permanent secretaries who have done their sums wrong or assisting them if they are minded to blow the whistle on ministers for misspending public money.

Sir Gordon was headhunted for the job of Commissioner of Parliamentary Standards. A cynic might say that, alongside all his formal qualifications, he was a parliamentary insider. As a former C&AG, he knows how the House of Commons works. For example, he knows how few MPs ever turn up to the debates on Public Accounts Committee reports, let alone how many of them ever bother to read its studies of departments and quangos and their spending - but he would never dream of making a public speech labelling the House of Commons as a hopeless monitor of the pounds 150bn or more of spending it votes each year

"Sir Gordon," said a friend yesterday, who himself knows a thing or two about that semi-private world of accounting and auditing of public money, "is a quiet operator." Sir Gordon himself says that as C&AG he was prepared to make a racket. Asked if he would have played the game had he been pressured to keep a lid on an embarrassing revelation, he replied: "I wouldn't have stood for it." Though he doesn't expect that kind of pressure now, he notes that he is, officially at least, retired and so not beholden to anyone for his integrity.

No one questions his personal probity. But does he have the wily political skills that would, for example, keep him out of the various traps set for Sir Richard Scott in his arms to Iraq inquiry?

For all the alleged radicalism of the Thatcher years, Britain is still run by chaps who trust other chaps. In such a world making a stink, calling the television cameras in, exposing MPs to further ridicule and embarrassment would take a most uncivil willingness to hold Parliament up to damaging criticism. Little in his career to date suggests that Sir Gordon would relish such a public scrap.

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