Just after the 2001 election, the triumphant Tony Blair had a plan: he would split the Home Office in two. The PM had been appalled by its performance in New Labour’s first term and had already decided to move Jack Straw to the Foreign Office. But the problem, he feared, could only be solved by creating two new departments. Peter Mandelson urged him to proceed — yet, in the event, both were talked out of it by the Civil Service. I am told that Mr Blair has regretted this ever since.
He will now have his revenge from beyond the political grave. John Reid’s new blueprint to create two distinct departments — Justice and Security — is unlikely to be enacted until Mr Blair has left No. 10. But they represent an important political message which is being put, with varying degrees of clamour, by almost every Blairite surviving in Cabinet. It’s not just the Home Office which is unfit for purpose, in their view. It is most of the Civil Service. The machine simply does not work.
Horror stories are easily found in Whitehall — and are not just told by politicians. David Nicholson was not long into his job as National Health Service chief executive when he had to deal with the furore over mixed-sex wards. How many hospitals were affected? He wanted an answer on his desk in two days. Nothing happened. A journalist obtained this information a few days later by means of a simple ring-round. Yet the head of the NHS, commanding an army of some 1.3 million people, was unable to achieve the same result.
In education, Lord Adonis — whom I interview on page 18 — describes education reform as a constant, 16-hour-day battle against the system. He has literally been taken to court by groups trying to oppose City Academies, an updated version of the old grant-maintained schools. And that is with senior civil servants on his side: in this case, it’s the rest of the machine which is against them. Lord Adonis frets that his plan is still in its infancy and may not survive into adulthood.
In the Department for Work and Pensions, speeches by John Hutton are beginning to resemble a requiem for what might have been. He speaks eloquently about the problem of family break-up — yet has been unable to prevent the welfare system from incentivising it. He rightly denounces those among the 2.7 million on incapacity benefit who should not be claiming it — yet, depressingly, his reform plan will require a decade to bring the figure down by one million. ‘And you should have heard the agony which even that target caused the department,’ a source tells me. ‘It was the best we can do.’
Labour has, from the outset, viewed the bureaucratic machine with suspicion. I still have a Christmas card sent to me by a former No. 10 adviser which carried no festive greeting, just a one-liner: ‘Why do so many people hate civil servants? It’s not as if they do anything.’ It was an attempt to break this system which persuaded Mr Blair to give his political appointees, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, the power to instruct civil servants.
Yet the result — say those affected — is not a blossoming of Napoleonic efficiency but a breakdown in the system that reflects the Blair circle’s disdain for proper procedure. Sofa government has led to incomplete note-taking and conflicting instructions. The ‘Call me Tony’ style of government has encouraged the abuse of departments as personal power bases. Civil servants complain about a succession of short-term, media-driven requests, usually intended to augment the personal standing of the minister rather than the development of public policy.
To take an example: in the Home Office, I am told, an official was asked to draw up a strategy on binge-drinking. By the time he had finished, the issue had been dropped by the media, and no one was interested any more. He may now take his forgotten plan to the Department of Health. Ministers’ failure to control the Civil Service has been a theme of British politics since Yes, Minister. The difference now is that no one, not even Sir Humphrey, is in charge.
To hear the complaints from both sides is like listening to the grievances of warring spouses in a collapsed marriage: both government and civil servants are in despair at each other. And — in contrast to previous rocky patches — both agree that the relationship has now irretrievably broken down.
What is so far absent is a coherent Conservative response to the problem. While David Cameron is surrounded by talent in the fields of marketing and communication, he has no one in his inner circle with deep experience of government to supplement his own limited knowledge as a former special adviser. ‘He’ll probably win the next election, thanks to Gordon Brown,’ I’m told by one former Cabinet member, ‘but he hugely overestimates what can be achieved by government. He thinks he can jump in there and run things better. He risks being a one-term prime minister.’
Not all Tories are prey to this delusion: there are admirable exceptions — among them Nick Herbert, the shadow minister for police reform (a job title which happily acknowledges the structural change required). But on health, the Conservative approach has been to befriend the doctors’ unions by promising them a quieter life. Andrew Lansley, the Tory health spokesman, proposes an NHS Independence Bill which would relieve the bureaucratic elite of their pesky accountability to elected politicians. This shows astounding faith in a system which has so spectacularly failed its users. Why should the producer interest deliver change? Mr Cameron has no answer.
The lessons of the Blair years are crystallising before us. Extra money does not guarantee results, because public sector unions more or less exist to ensure that new resources are siphoned off into pay. The frustrated noises from Mr Blair’s lieutenants — Patricia Hewitt, Mr Hutton, Mr Reid and Lord Adonis — are not simply the complaints of bad workmen blaming their tools. This is the dismay of a cohort of politicians who have learned the hard way that political power seems far greater from the outside than it actually is once you are ensconced in the minister’s office. The system cannot be relied upon to change: quite the opposite, in fact.
Worse, there is scant evidence that this lesson has been learnt by Gordon Brown — who, as his detractors point out, has no more experience of running a normal spending department than Mr Cameron. Faith in the public sector is integral to the Chancellor’s political creed, as is the belief that only the state can deliver ‘fairness’. This credo is expected to underpin the ten-year review he is planning to publish in the summer. If the Blairites failed, he believes, it is because they were incompetent and their prescriptions were wrong.
The rebellion over the Prime Minister’s attempts to grant churches exemption from his equality legislation shows how the veneer of Cabinet unity could collapse at any minute. Mr Blair has long hoped that his ‘reform’ agenda will outlive him, and that his successors — Labour or Tory — will salvage the best of what he has sought to achieve. But he is facing the worst nightmare of all. That his government will come crashing down, and that its successes, as well as the lessons of its failures, will be lost in the debris.