A strange report, yesterday, from the Cabinet Secretary into the Liam Fox affair (see: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/allegations-against-rt-hon-dr-liam-fox-mp-report-cabinet-secretary). Leaving aside the details of the affair, the report is, at best, diplomatic. At worst, it is unclear. One phrase stands out. Donations in this case ‘could be seen as giving rise to the perception of a conflict of interest’. It seems the Cabinet Secretary is unclear what is meant by a conflict of interest.
It refers to conflicts between a public role and your private interests. The exercise of a public office should be in the public interest alone and be free from any personal interests. Conflicts include clear cases, such as awarding contracts to friends or relatives, owning shares in such a company etc. But a conflict also arises when friends have privileged access to influence, or when donations are made to political or other funds. These are conflicts of interest. There is no question of perception.
This is not to say that, because there is a conflict, some terrible injustice or gross corruption has occurred. A conflict exists, whether it leads to any financial gain or other advantage. Removing or managing such conflicts is part and parcel of daily life in government at a senior level.
‘…Could be seen as giving rise to the perception of a conflict of interest’ suggests that there is no conflict of interest, just a perception. It seems to suggest that a conflict arises when someone gains. So the offence reported on by the Cabinet Secretary is the perception that someone gained in some way from the relationship. But this is to misunderstand. There was a conflict.