February 4, 2023

Rishi Sunak’s new ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, is an old Etonian “quango king”, an urban grandee and a pillar of the establishment.

He was not knighted by the Queen in the usual way after being nominated by 10 Downing Street. His title is hereditary.

He is in fact a baronetcy, the third in a baronetcy dating back to 1917, when it was awarded to an ancestor who represented London University in the House of Commons.

Sir Lauries appointment as Chief Ethics Officer comes more than eight weeks after Mr Sunak became prime minister and there are claims the prime minister struggled to find a candidate.

Remember, the last two holders of the post, veteran mandarin Sir Alex Allan and former royal courtier Sir Christopher Geidt, both resigned after disagreements with Boris Johnson.

Sir Alex retired in 2020 after finding former Home Secretary Priti Patel guilty of bullying and then Mr. Johnson declared that she had not violated the ministerial code.

Sir Christopher, Former Private Secretary to the Queen, stopped in June this year after admitting that Mr Johnson may have broken ministerial rules on party gate.

So Mr. Sunak has turned to a former investment banker who works on half a dozen quangos and whose long business career involved ties to disgraced retail magnate Sir Philip Green and the late tycoon Robert Maxwell.

It is controversial that Sir Laurie in his new role will not have the power to launch his own investigation into allegations or misconduct by the minister. He only starts an investigation if the Prime Minister asks for it.

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That was believed to be one of the reasons why Sir Christopher quit, but in his letter of appointment to Sir Laurie, Mr Sunak wrote: “I propose to keep the existing terms of reference as agreed with your predecessor.”

So that means Sir Laurie won’t be able to launch his own investigation into the behavior of Dominic Raab, the Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister facing eight allegations of bullying, or Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary , for allegations of leaking and ignoring legal advice on asylum, though both deny any wrongdoing.

Sir Laurie’s quango resume includes chairmanship of Historic England, a former trustee of the conservation charity the Landmark Trust, ex-chairman of the National Trust, membership of the Culture Recovery Fund, a trustee of English Heritage Trust and deputy chairman of the All Churches Trust.

As Historic England boss, Sir Laurie entered the row over the demolition of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, claiming that such statues should not be removed, but that ‘counter-memorials’ should be placed next to them.

In addition to his quango roles, Sir Laurie remains an important figure in the City, serving as a senior advisor to investment banking group Evercore and as chairman of two FTSE 250-listed investment funds.

“Laurie Magnus is truly a member of the great and good people of the city,” reveals a senior Square Mile insider. “He was a director of Samuel Montagu over 30 years ago, one of the oldest of what we called merchant banks. He really is a patrician.

He was once an advisor to Philip Green, at the time when he ran the publicly traded clothing company Amber Day, which subsequently went bankrupt.

Samuel Montagu was Robert Maxwell’s lead investment banking advisor for many years and oversaw the poor flotation of Mirror Group Newspapers in 1990.

“I don’t think Sir Laurie was responsible for the direct customer relationship with Captain Bob, but he must have known him.

“Samuel Montagu had the unenviable task of disentangling Mirror Group from the rest of the Maxwell empire prior to the IPO, which would have given them enough insight to know what a villain he was.”

Villains in politics? Never. But as he now moves from business and quangos to politics, the next chapter in Sir Laurie’s colorful career could prove to be much more controversial.

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