After previously gunning for the Conservatives' election campaign chief Lynton Crosby over his links to the tobacco industry, Labour has found a new target in the form of Nick Clegg's director of strategy Ryan Coetzee. The former South African MP, who took up the post in September 2012, is often compared with Crosby but unlike him is paid entirely from the public purse (earning £110,000 a year). It is this that Labour has taken issue with, noting his involvement in Liberal Democrat election strategy and private polling for the party. The special advisers' code of conduct states that "special advisers should not use official resources for party political activity".
Clegg said at his monthly press conference yesterday: "We’ve done it by the book and it’s not unusual for politicians in government to get support on what are the main concerns of the British public and how can we address them in government. That’s exactly what we’re doing."
A Lib Dem spokesman said: "A key part of his role as director of strategy is to ensure that all government messaging strictly reflects the Lib Dems and Lib Dem priorities. He is a special adviser so he is paid out of public funds. The salaries are all transparent and published on the internet."
But those answers haven't satisfied Labour with MP Sheila Gilmore writing to cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood demanding that he investigate whether the code of conduct may have been broken. Here's her letter in full.
Dear Sir Jeremy,
Following reports that Mr Ryan Coetzee, Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister, is employed to work on the Liberal Democrats’ election planning and has been conducting political polling on their behalf, I am writing to express the concern that his actions may be in breach of the Special Advisers Code of Conduct, and to ask you to investigate.
As you will know, the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct states:
‘Special advisers should not use official resources for party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the Government and the Department in which they work. It is this which justifies their being paid from public funds and being able to use public resources, and explains why their participation in party politics is carefully limited…They should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes.’
The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, Cabinet Office, 2010, p.3
If Mr Coetzee is working on issues concerning the Liberal Democrats’ election strategy rather than the objectives of the Cabinet Office, where he is employed on the public payroll, this would appear a breach of the code.
In recognition of the importance of upholding public trust in political appointments, I hope that you will be able to confirm beyond all doubt that the code has not been broken and will in particular be able to answer the following questions:
- Could you specify what political activity has been undertaken by Mr Coetzee on behalf of the Liberal Democrats during his time employed as Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister, and in each instance what steps were taken to ensure the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers was followed?
- What polling exercises has Mr Coetzee conducted in his capacity as Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister to which public funds were committed?
- How many meetings has Mr Coetzee attended at Liberal Democrat Offices in Great George St during his period employed in his capacity as Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister, at what times and dates, and what steps have been taken to ensure the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers has been followed?
It would rightly be extremely concerning if the Liberal Democrats were exploiting public resources and the important role played by Special Advisers to further party political interests rather than government objectives.
I look forward to your response.