In lieu of trust, we need transparency - why Rishi Sunak should reveal what he knows about his investments
With trust in politicians so low, those in power have a duty to be completely open about their interests
Much has been made of Rishi Sunak’s extraordinary personal wealth, but little is known about his personal investments. Given Sunak’s proximity to Silicon Valley and its focus on so-called disruptive technologies like crypto and blockchain, some have speculated that his government’s focus on crypto technologies - with Sunak setting out an ambition last year for the UK to become a ‘global hub’ for crypto - could be a result of financial stake in the sector.
It’s possible, and even likely, that Sunak doesn’t have a personal stake in the crypto sector. As Simon Youel from the Positive Money think tank has suggested, the PM has potentially just “swallowed the crypto Kool-aid” - but the problem is, Number 10 won’t tell us. And if the government is forging ahead with plans to welcome the crypto sector with open arms, despite warnings from the Financial Conduct authority about the potential for people to lose money to crypto scams, we need to know for sure why that is.
In an ideal world, this concern would be easy to assuage. A properly functioning standards and transparency regime would work in such a way that there could be no reasonable question about whether a Prime Minister had investments in a particular sector. We would just know. But unfortunately, we don’t have a properly functioning standards and transparency regime, and so what we do have is uncertainty.
Instead of clarity all we know is that the Prime Minister’s investments are held in a blind trust arrangement, which works something like this; upon taking up ministerial office, an MP hands over the task of managing their investment portfolio to a third party and they are then “blind” to what happens to it. In theory, this means they can’t influence their investments and therefore can’t make decisions in office which would have a material impact upon them.
But there are problems with this system. Not least that ministers obviously know what is in their portfolios at the point at which the arrangement is set up - and indeed the rules even allow for ministers to “give general directions about the nature of investments when the trust is established”.
Plus, like much of the standards regime in Westminster, blind trusts remaining blind relies on what the PM’s ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus has referred to as the ‘the good chap approach’ - trusting that MPs and ministers are completely honest and up front.
There is no oversight or auditing process for blind trust arrangements; in fact, we are not even allowed to know who manages the trust on Sunak’s behalf, meaning in theory it could be a close friend or a firm he has had ties with. Theleme Partners, the investment firm Sunak used to work for, has publicly stated that it does not manage his investments.
Ultimately, we deserve to know why the UK is taking a punt on a highly controversial industry which an increasing number of investors are steering well clear of. That’s without even considering that a Treasury minister has a stake in a crypto-backing investment fund, and one of the Conservative’s big donors has acted as a lobbyist for the crypto industry in the EU. While the value of certain cryptocurrencies has rebounded in the last month or so, the long term prognosis for the wider sector still looks potentially very bleak, with many big players facing charges from US regulators. And even if the bet pays off, we deserve to know whether it was motivated by a personal or financial interest.
After the long series of scandals and sleaze that eventually forced Boris Johnson out of office, and the rapid implosion of Liz Truss’ premiership afterwards, Sunak entered No 10 with a promise to restore “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.
“Trust is earned,” he said, “and I will earn yours”.
Has he managed it? Polling firm YouGov runs a tracker on whether the public think Sunak is trustworthy or not, and a big majority think not, at 53%, compared with 24% who find the PM trustworthy.
So in absence of trust, what we need is transparency. The ‘good chap approach’ just won’t cut it anymore. It’s time for answers.