14 February 2011

Recent accident-proneness in government has led the commentariat to come out with prescriptions to help the coalition perform better. But the issues they highlight point to more enduring problems in the way we run government and policy.

Two influential political commentators – Phil Collins of the Times who worked in No.10 under Tony Blair and Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer, documenter of the internal tensions of the last government, have recently opined on the current accident proneness of the government – whether on health, prisoners’ votes, school building or the forestry sell-off.

For Collins, the answer is for the PM to become CEO rather than hands-off Chairman; and to appoint a political strategy team – to find the coalition answer to Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson in the shape of a hardened political strategy team.

For Rawnsley, the issues are a bit different – novice Ministers, “impetuosity and ideology” and the fact that the coalition is a “very top down project” facing inward rather than looking outward (at voters and other such people who matter).   But again, part of the problem identified is that No.10, ”thinks of the policy, not the politics”  - a point echoed in Conservative Home last Friday on the forestry sell-off.

Demands that governments – and Prime Ministers in particular – get a grip are not new. They happen every time a government hits an inevitable rocky patch.  But what does this chorus of concern tell us about government today?

First, is that economising on people supporting the Prime Minister is a false economy.  In opposition, whether external or internal, Prime Ministers always look lavishly supported – and putative Prime Ministers swear to forswear the excesses of their predecessor.  Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have fallen into the trap. But as they gain the keys to No.10,  they rapidly realise that they need more warm bodies to ensure they can stay abreast of the sweep of government activity – and that some of those have to be “political” – able to look out for the political problems as much as the technocratic flaws.

The Institute has been looking at support to the PM across a number of countries and what is striking is how parsimonious support, particularly political support, is to our Prime Minister.    Organisations differ and international comparisons are notoriously difficult.  But the 20 or so political advisers in No.10 contrast markedly with over 30 in Australia, some 60 in Sweden and well over 100 in Canada.  The news that David Cameron is planning to appoint a Director of Political Strategy suggests he is realising there is a gap to be filled.

The second issue is whether the demands of coalition have made the government too “inward facing”.  One of the good things about the coalition is that it has had to institute better internal processes to make sure that policies are acceptably “coalitionised”.   But the culture of sorting out wrangles – whether between parties, factions or just departmental interests - behind closed doors and then springing them on an unsuspecting public is far from unique to the coalition.    Similar critiques could be levelled at Mrs Thatcher (the decision to close the coal mines), John Major (rail privatisation) and Labour (the abolition of the 10p tax rate).  Our policy reunions on pensions and the minimum wage have shown the benefits of exposing the thinking behind the policy to public scrutiny.

As Andrew Rawnsley says in his article, none of this is “anywhere near life-threatening” – but the coalition would do well to reflect on the causes of some of its current travails and tweak its operating model before they are.