Does anyone actually resign anymore? Nowadays a resignation is regarded not as a final act but as a temporary career break and that’s bad for business.
Paul Gray – the former head of HM Revenue and Customs who ‘resigned’ two weeks ago after someone in his department posted the names, addresses and bank details of millions of citizens to another bureaucrat and it never arrived – has ‘returned to work for the government’, according to a Channel 4 News and The Guardian . The mandarin who fell on his sword has miraculously bounced off it again and into a £200,000-a-year post in the Cabinet Office, where he is said to be involved in a project ‘to develop civil servants’ skills’. Like how to write “Confidential Personal Data, Extremely Valuable to Fraudsters: Try Not To Lose This Time” on big brown envelopes. Or for the advanced course: how to pretend to do the honourable thing to help your ministerial boss out of a tight corner, and make sure you come out OK.
This is, no doubt, all about Mr Gray’s pension entitlements: sixty next August, with 38 years’ blameless service in a succession of the dullest Whitehall posts it is possible to imagine, he clearly wasn’t going to walk the plank without a safety net. Faced with public humiliation for the actions of a junior staff member in a remote office (even if that action was symptomatic of poor management all the way up) most of us might feel the same way. But the Cabinet Office’s explanation is a masterpiece of obfuscation: ‘Paul Gray resigned with immediate effect on November 20. For contractual reasons he remains a senior civil servant. He will be leaving at the end of the year. In the meantime he is working on cross-departmental matters. He is retiring early next year.’ In other words: yes, he carried the can for the lost-disks fiasco, but only as far as a comfortable office across the road where he will serve out his time as though nothing had happened.
So when, in the modern world, is a resignation a resignation? Just how badly do you have to cock up, embarrass your colleagues or damage your shareholders’ wealth before you actually have to hand in your car-park pass? When was the last time a Labour minister resigned honourably and never came back? Only Estelle Morris springs to mind: when she stood down as secretary of state for education and skills in 2002, she told the prime minister that ‘I have not felt I have been as effective as I should be, or as effective as you need me to be’, which was searingly honest by Westminster standards. But even she had earlier declined to keep to a pledge to resign if literacy and numeracy targets were not met; and having finally done the decent thing, she settled comfortably onto the red leather benches of the House of Lords.
The trouble is that resignation, forced early retirement, expired term limits, even plain old-fashioned sacking – short of having committed fraud, gross negligence or something really rococo in the sexual arena – no longer mean what they once meant, in business or government. Mostly, it’s just a game these days, a morality-free merry-go-round of responsibility-dodging on which an occasional time-out is all that’s needed to make amends for major mishaps or under-performance. Getting ousted from running a FTSE-100 company doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means a handful of powerful shareholders think someone else could do the job better: being relieved of the post of chief executive of NatWest in 1999 didn’t stop Gordon Brown’s chum Sir Derek Wanless from finding a new berth on the Northern Rock board as chairman of (woops) its ‘risk committee’. You have to have got it as badly wrong as Lord Simpson of Dunkeld did at Marconi – where he presided over the all-but-total destruction of the company that was once the mighty GEC – before the head-hunters actually take your card out of their Rolodexes and stop calling.
But then, who in the world is setting a example? Bill Clinton is shamelessly heading back to the White House as his wife’s most potent electoral asset, Monica Lewinsky forgotten. Vladimir Putin has served his maximum term as Russian president, within a constitutional structure designed to stop anyone like him securing too permanent a power base. And guess what, with the voters’ apparent blessing he’s got the whole thing fixed so that he can take over as prime minister, install a stooge successor as president, and carrying on running the country as though nothing had changed. (Though my sources in Russia tell me he might do it a different way, perhaps even more frightening to Europe, and make himself chairman of Gazprom, confirming suspicions that he has always regarded the giant state oil and gas company as an instrument of his new-Russian-imperialist foreign policy.)
But does any of this lead to better government or sharper company performance? It is mostly the reverse, with a complacent whiff of conspiracy about it. I think we need yet another new campaign to clean up public life and improve corporate governance, but this one would have a very simple aim and slogan: when you’re time’s up, for whatever reason, for God’s sake just pack up and go.