Two weeks ago Justine Greening was demoted for the offence of sticking to the Conservative manifesto on which she was elected and refusing to back down over the proposal for a third runway at Heathrow. This week she has shown that she is far from being demoralised by the experience; in fact, it might turn out to be the making of her. She has grasped in a fortnight what seemed to evade Andrew Mitchell, her predecessor at the Department for International Development (DfID), for two-and-a-half years. She has taken the trouble to examine her department’s swollen budget and ask herself: is all this money really being wisely spent?
The revelation that DfID paid out £500 million in consultants’ fees last year should come as no surprise: when a government decides to define public spending as a good in itself, fat salaries tend to result. It is as if Whitehall were doing a remake of the film Brewster’s Millions, whose protagonist is on a mission to spend $30 million in a week. DfID’s mission is to spend £30 million a day. It is a tough task, especially given that David Cameron wants to pass a law making it illegal for officials to spend less. Greening has stepped out of the world of cuts and entered a parallel universe, where panicked officials worry about where to bury the cash.
This March the government proudly announced it was well on the way to achieving its target: aid spending has reached 0.56 per cent of national income, far higher than France (0.4 per cent) or the US (0.2). There was just one question unanswered in the progress report: what good, if any, has the increase in aid spending achieved? No other Whitehall department would get away with boasting about how much it is spending, without showing what it is delivering.