The Tories must go back to basics

11 Jul 08
PETER RIDDELL | The Conservatives are starting to prepare for government. There are close parallels with New Labour’s position in the mid-1990s: a largely inexperienced team, after a long period in opposition, with a lack of knowledge of Whitehall.

The Conservatives are starting to prepare for government. There are close parallels with New Labour’s position in the mid-1990s: a largely inexperienced team, after a long period in opposition, with a lack of knowledge of Whitehall.

While party control changed three times during the 1970s, it has shifted just twice in the past 30 years, in 1979 and 1997. This has had a profound effect on politicians and civil servants. Whereas, with the notable exception of the first Wilson government in October 1964, most incoming administrations were full of ministers familiar with the ways of Whitehall, that did not apply in 1997, nor would it in 2010.

Back in 1997, the incoming Blair Cabinet had no-one with experience at that level. Similarly, David Cameron’s shadow Cabinet contains only one member with previous Cabinet experience in William Hague, while just six others are former junior ministers.

Incoming ministers and their special advisers have to learn how Whitehall works. The danger is of a climate of misunderstanding and suspicion. Quite a few New Labour ministers and advisers saw the senior civil service as tainted by the long Conservative years, so even if not politicised in the crude sense of being partisan, more were seen as having adapted their behaviour and attitudes to their long-serving political masters.

By 1996/97, this was the reverse of the truth as many senior civil servants, frustrated by the divisions of the doomed Major government, looked forward to a fresh lead.

But there were several cases in which relations between new ministers and civil servants were poor, as the former preferred to work with special advisers whom they knew and trusted.

This applied particularly in media relations as the New Labour team removed most of the chief press officers, whom they had inherited, while in the Treasury, for example, then chancellor Gordon Brown and permanent secretary Terry — now Lord — Burns were never able to establish a good working relationship.

There are warning signs of the same happening again. As the Conservatives have soared in the polls, some shadow ministers have displayed more than a touch of hubris: the belief that they, their advisers and think-tanks have all the answers and there is nothing they can learn from the senior civil service.

This is reinforced by the anti-government, anti-bureaucratic instincts of many Tories. Too often, there is a failure to distinguish between deciding which activities should be performed by the state and which by the private or voluntary sectors, and a blanket denigration of all civil servants as inherently inferior to those in the private sector.

Formal talks will begin next January between shadow ministers and permanent secretaries. And Francis Maude, whose ministerial career was cut short by the loss of his Commons seat in 1992, is now

co-ordinating Conservative preparations for government, examining how policy pledges can be implemented, what they mean for the legislative programme and for the machinery of government.

This all makes sense. But something more fundamental is needed if the mistakes of the first Blair term are to be avoided. Anyone in doubt should read the new book by Kate Jenkins, Politicians and public services — implementing change in a clash of cultures, which underlines the need for better training for civil servants and politicians.

Jenkins argues that there is ‘little incentive for politicians to become expert in the mechanics of how government works. The only real pressure on them comes from the risk of electoral defeat or hounding by the media’.

It is hard to train for office. The briefings for Labour shadow ministers before the 1997 election by former senior civil servants and academics seem to have had a limited impact, judging by the results.

Neutral forums to encourage contacts between civil servants and opposition frontbenchers, and to help incoming ministers, are hard to establish. This is an important potential role for the new Institute of Government under inaugural dean Sir Michael Bichard.

The Tories are already being assessed as a potential government, not only in their policies but also by their record where they are in office. City Hall in London under Boris Johnson is being seen, both positively and negatively, as a test for the Cameron brand of new conservatism.

Any major slip-ups could damage the party, which is why Johnson has been careful so far, and also why the row over the resignation of Ray Lewis, one of his deputies, is so potentially damaging.

We need to abandon the myth that inexperienced opposition politicians can become fully fledged ministers on the day after a general election. At present, their priority is electioneering. But they also need to learn how to govern.

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