The burdens of office can wear a man down. When Nick Herbert was the minister for policing and criminal justice, he looked exhausted; as if he was carrying the troubles of two departments on his shoulders. But having quit the government in the September reshuffle, he is relishing his newfound freedom.
He says he can fit in an interview on Monday morning, between the bishop and his bank manager. Happy to come between God and Mammon, I stroll along to his office, which is still on the House of -Commons’s ministerial corridor. No longer limited by collective responsibility, he has much to say.
Herbert’s first major intervention as an ex-minister will be on the European Court of Human Rights. He is giving a lecture to a think-tank next week in which he will set out why he thinks the current Tory position is inadequate. Creating a British Bill of Rights but still leaving the Strasbourg Court as the ultimate arbiter will change little, he argues. ‘There’ll still be the individual right of appeal to the European court. We have to think more radically about whether it is actually appropriate to have this supra-national court. We’ve created a Supreme Court in this country, why can’t it be supreme?’
What Herbert proposes is leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. He remarks that ‘what people find offensive in this country is the idea of a supra-national court — you can level all sorts of criticisms over the way it can gainsay what our elected parliament has decided.’
When I put to him that Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General and the Court’s greatest Tory defender, will never agree to his solution, Herbert doesn’t demur. He repeats that ‘there needs to be this debate’, which is polite politician’s code for saying the other guy is wrong.
Listening to Herbert, it is clear that he still has an appetite for politics. This makes his decision to resign all the more puzzling. He quit just before the Police and Crime Commissioner elections — the apogee of the reforms that he had being pushing through. When I probe him on why he left in the reshuffle, he responds that it was ‘because I wasn’t happy in government and I certainly wasn’t prepared to spend another two years in the Home Office’. This comment will do little to dampen speculation in Westminster that he found the Home Secretary, Theresa May, difficult to work with.
He continues, ‘There are some people for whom being even a junior minister is a really big deal. They walk tall when they carry their red boxes, and I guess that I’m just different because I didn’t feel like that at all. I think I can be more useful by pursuing some of the things I believe in from a position where I am freer to do that.’ He laments that as ‘a junior minister, even if you’re in charge of a major reform programme, you’re a long way away from the leadership — that’s the nature of the system.’
Herbert’s time in office convinced him that the government machine is broken. He complains that ‘as a minister I felt less supported than I was in opposition’. His voice rising, he says, ‘I would reflect on a daily basis that there are meant to be hundreds, thousands, of people working for me but I can’t get what I want done.’
He warns that ‘the whole model of a generalist, permanent civil service providing support for ministers is one that is simply not fit for today’s government, either in terms of policy development or delivery. You only have to look at the West Coast Main Line to ask yourself if there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with the way in which we are delivering government in this country.’
But it’s not just the civil service. Leaning forward in his chair, he asks pointedly: ‘Does the new generation of professional politicians, of which I regrettably count myself one, have the right kind of skills and experience to interrogate a permanent civil service, to ask the right kind of questions?’ Herbert thinks the answer is no and that we need a set-up that ‘allows those who are truly expert in and capable of running very big organisations’ to come in.
I question him on what his colleagues made of his view of the limitations of the system. He replies, ‘I think some would agree, particularly those who are in charge of large reform programmes and really want to get things done.’ Spurred on by his own experience, Herbert will shortly launch an investigation into how to reform government and its administration. ‘The status quo is no longer a tenable one,’ he declares.
At the risk of turning the interview into a therapy session, I ask about the Police and Crime Commissioner elections and the pitifully low turnout. Herbert is in no doubt about who is to blame for this. ‘At the last moment the Liberal Democrats quite deliberately decided to seek a delay to November, which had a very damaging effect on turnout. That decision should not have been made.’ Did he warn against it? ‘Yes!’
Herbert hasn’t yet forgiven the Lib Dems for their underhand tactics. ‘The attempt to derail it has not succeeded but I am seriously pissed off that they tried and I say that as somebody who was among the most pro-coalition of ministers.’ He accuses the Liberal Democrats of having no ideological objection to elected Police Commissioners but rather of operating out of the basest of motives. ‘They feared the combination of the elections in May when they didn’t want a national vote share, and they also didn’t think that they would win any Police and Crime Commissioner constituencies, and they were right about that. The only way they did manage to win was by pretending one of their candidates was an independent.’
He does, though, concede that everyone involved on the Tory side, from the Prime Minister down, including himself, ‘should have worked harder’ to recruit better candidates: ‘Once bitten with the mayoral elections, we should have been twice shy.’
Perhaps Herbert’s greatest claim to political distinction is that — as chief executive of Business for Sterling — he was one of the people who kept Britain out of the euro. He is emphatic that in any referendum on Europe, ‘“Out” has to be on the ballot paper. If you have over 50 per cent of the country saying that they would contemplate leaving, to produce some kind of referendum option that doesn’t have that would be a travesty.’ Personally, he favours renegotiation.
Walking away from the interview, I’m left with the odd feeling that Herbert quit government in order to spend more time on politics. I suspect, as he hopes, he may end up achieving more from the outside than he did from the inside.