Emily Carver: Kate Bingham is right – the machinery of government is in trouble. It’s time Johnson proved he has a vision.

24 Nov

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

When a crisis hits, long-term reform understandably slips down any leader’s priority list. Harold Wilson’s attempts to shake up government were scuppered by the sterling crisis. Edward Heath’s plans to roll back the tentacles of the state were derailed by an unemployment crisis and subsequent economic turmoil.  

Now, with a general election less than two and a half years away, Boris Johnson’s promise of a ‘revolutionary overhaul’ of Whitehall seems little more than a pipedream. With the immediate threat of the pandemic having occupied much of the Government’s bandwidth, an agenda of radical reform has been firmly pushed into the ‘too-difficult pile’.  

To be generous to the government, crises have a way of getting in the way of long-term thinking. As Harold MacMillan said “events, my dear boy, events”. However, there is little excuse for a government with an 80-seat majority not to address the well-known failures of Whitehall.

Former vaccine tsar Kate Bingham made a powerful intervention in The Times this week, claiming that had we relied on the existing machinery of government, our world-leading vaccination programme would have been no such thing. If things don’t change, she warned, we will be left woefully unprepared for the next public health emergency. 

Highlighting the “devastating lack of skills and experience in science, industry and manufacturing” across all levels of government, she argued that civil servants have a tendency to treat business with “hostility and suspicion”. This, she said, had led to some damaging decisions such as the recent cancellation of the government’s contract with Valneva before its Covid vaccine had completed final clinical testing.   

Bingham’s criticism of the culture of the civil service is damning, though unsurprising. She noted that the machinery of government is “dominated by process, rather than outcome”, that there is “a culture of risk aversion that stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging”, and that a preoccupation with how decisions may play with the media is impeding performance. Many people within the civil service will testify to this. 

As the Institute of Economic Affairs has warned, the precautionary principle is very much embedded in government decision-making at all levels. A degree of risk aversion may be desirable under some circumstances, but it can be crippling in times of crisis, when what is needed is fast and decisive action. 

As Bingham identifies, “groupthink” is one of the major challenges within Whitehall, as it is across so many of our publicly funded institutions. We know that the civil service is hampered by the dominance of a metropolitan left-liberal world view. Time and time again civil servants are accused of obstructing Conservative policies for political reasons – not least when it came to getting Brexit over the line. 

Endless diversity and inclusion initiatives will do little to remedy this. Cummings’ credibility may be questionable, but his calls to recruit ‘weirdos and misfits’ into the civil service was a sound one. A civil service that does not allow for independent thought will fail to attract or retain the brightest minds. That’s if the painful box-ticking application process isn’t enough to put them off to begin with. 

Of course, a crisis may derail long-term thinking, but it can also act as a catalyst for change. Bingham is right that the vaccine taskforce has demonstrated the value of the private sector – and Whitehall must learn form this. But with a headcount of over 465,000 people, the civil service is a beast to reckon with.  

Real reform cannot be beyond the wit of man – Margaret Thatcher is proof of this. Yes, the Government has made attempts to reform the excessively bloated bureaucracy. The merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office was one such move. Plans to shift jobs out of London and link pay to performance may also help to encourage new ways of thinking and boost standards respectively. But these don’t go nearly far enough. 

In recent weeks, it has become clearer that the Prime Minister lacks a coherent vision for this country. The tax burden, ever-increasing public spending, and endless statist interventions in the name of the green agenda show little in the way of any meaningful economic strategy. 

Now, following his much-criticised speech to the CBI, it’s time for the Prime Minister to prove he does have a vision. One way would be to recommit to scaling back the scope of the state – and make good on his promise to sort out the machinery of government. 

Andrew Mitchell’s entertaining memoir shows the British Establishment riven by dissent

23 Oct

Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey by Andrew Mitchell

A distinguishing feature of present-day members of the Establishment is their insistence, usually quite sincere, that they do not belong to it.

Andrew Mitchell says in his Preface that he “resigned” from the Establishment in 2013. He makes it sound like the Garrick Club, from which it is indeed possible to resign.

Leaving the Establishment is more complicated. Mitchell was born into it: his father, Sir David Mitchell, was a Conservative MP for 33 years.

And Mitchell himself has passed, as he writes, “through most British Establishment institutions”, including prep and public school, the Army, Cambridge, the City of London, the House of Commons and the Cabinet.

His account of his experiences is often highly entertaining, though there are moments, oddly enough, when one could have wished for more detail, as in this scene from 2007 after David Cameron had addressed the Rwandan Parliament:

“Inevitably tempers frayed and later in the day David had to intervene physically to stop a fight breaking out between me and Steve Hilton, who has a ferocious temper. In spite of being nearly a foot shorter than me, he was poised to spring into a violent attack.”

In this vignette, we begin to see that the Establishment, which may seem from the outside, or in lazy journalistic usage, to be a monolithic organisation with a single Establishment view, is actually riven by dissent.

Hilton wants to beat up Mitchell. No doubt from Hilton’s point of view, Mitchell had been unbelievably annoying, probably by insisting on some point with which Hilton disagreed.

All three men were under severe strain, for there were floods in Witney, Cameron’s constituency, and the press was attacking him for instead being in Africa, advertising the Conservative Party’s new approach to international aid.

The Establishment engages in continual argument. Its greatest institution, the House of Commons, is set up for argument, so too are the law courts and so is the press.

The Conservative Party has survived, indeed flourished, by having the necessary arguments, including the argument about Europe.

This is something which people who see disagreement as a sign of failure – who presume, in their innocence, that politics can be reduced to an ideology, a set of immutable principles – will never understand. To them, Boris Johnson will remain incomprehensible, and so will the Conservative Party.

Mitchell has an amusing chapter entitled “Boris: My Part in his Ascent”. In 1992, John Major had made Mitchell the Vice-Chairman in charge of the Candidates’ Department at Conservative Central Office.

In June 1993, Johnson applied to become a Conservative candidate. He wanted at that point to be an MEP, not an MP.

Richard Simmonds, the senior MEP on the selection board, said Johnson would be admitted to the candidates’ list “over my dead body”. At the crucial meeting of the assessors, the merits of the 47 other applicants were quite quickly decided, but a tremendous argument developed over Johnson:

“Ned Dawnay was firm: Boris was a most impressive applicant; he was clearly a proper Conservative; his intellect, knowledge and energy marked him out; he must be admitted. Richard Simmonds, supported by the other five MEPs, was adamant: Boris was a cynical journalist, a chancer, a brand not a politician, a less than honest political thorn in Prime Minister Major’s side; taking him into the party’s candidates list would be embarrassing for the Conservative group in the European Parliament. Were he to be elected as an MEP it would be a nightmare.”

Mitchell gets Johnson on the list by one vote; tells the Party Chairman, Norman Fowler, that he, Mitchell, will resign if the decision is overturned; but is summoned to see John Major in the Prime Minister’s office behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons:

“The meeting did not start well. As I entered his office, he was standing by the fireplace. ‘Ah, Andrew, thanks for coming: what the fuck do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates’ list?'”

As part of his explanation to Major, Mitchell says he has extracted an agreement from Johnson not to stand in a winnable European seat. Johnson scrapes through onto the list, soon afterwards tries to stand in a winnable European seat, is dissuaded by Mitchell from doing so, but in 1997 stands instead for the then unwinnable Commons seat of Clwyd South.

We see the Conservative Party having the necessary argument about whether or not Johnson is a fit and proper person to become one of its candidates, and perhaps, in due course, a senior member of the Establishment.

Anyone thinking of embarking on a political career could with profit read Mitchell’s memoir, and so could anyone who wants to know how Conservative policy on international aid was revolutionised after 2005, with the author serving first as Shadow International Development Secretary and then from 2010 in the actual job.

A paradox of elective systems is that one needs, generally speaking, to possess more than normal push in order to put oneself forward. A reluctant sense of public duty is not generally speaking enough.

Mitchell is a gung-ho character: he goes for things; at an early stage runs for and gets the Presidency of the Cambridge Union, a school of argument.

The question in politics, perhaps in life generally, is when, having gone for something, to settle, as the lawyers put it. And this is what goes wrong in Plebgate, the wretched altercation in 2012 between Mitchell and the police officers guarding the Downing Street gates.

Some of the officers behaved abominably: that was established by, among others, the journalist Michael Crick. There was a public interest in having the necessary argument about this: almost a decade later and after much worse failings have come to light, the condition of the Metropolitan Police continues to be a cause of grave concern.

But Mitchell overplayed his hand: as he himself says, instead of walking away with his reputation “largely restored”, he made the “fatal mistake” of suing The Sun for libel, and lost. The ordeal is set out here.

Part of the delight and terror of politics is the sheer unexpectedness with which one can rise and fall, the snakes and ladders aspect to it. Perhaps that unpredictability is one of the things people like about Johnson.

In 2019 Mitchell obtains various assurances from Johnson – the preservation of the 0.7 per cent aid target, DfID to remain an independent department, Mitchell himself to play some key though not quite specified role – and backs him for the leadership:

“I was genuinely surprised and dismayed at the incredibly strong and angry reaction of many of my closest friends who regarded my support for Boris as simply unconscionable. The reaction of my children was unprintable. At a Robert Harris book launch attended by many of my old friends from Cambridge days I was literally put up against a wall, interrogated and denounced.”

The Establishment was divided against itself. In the 1990s Mitchell served as a Whip, and one evening was told to go and give Sir Peter Tapsell “a bollocking” for voting against the Government. This Mitchell could not do: Tapsell was far too senior and dignified a figure to be bollocked.

So Mitchell instead walked silently at Tapsell’s side, in the early hours of the morning, down the stairs through the Members’ Lobby and out through the cloakroom at the Members’ Entrance, hoping “he would feel the reproach of a younger colleague through my silence”.

As they left the Members’ Entrance, Tapsell turned to him and said:

“You see, Andrew, there is nothing I want from your office. I am rich – very rich – I advise central bankers around the world; I am already a knight and I certainly have no wish whatsoever to be a member of this benighted government. The only thing I want is to have my dead son back, and there is nothing you can do about that.”

Ryan Henson and Katherine Mulhern: We must maintain Britain’s reputation as an international development superpower

15 Aug

Ryan Henson is Chief Executive at the Coalition for Global Prosperity. Katherine Mulhern is Director of the Conservative Friends of International Development.

An effective development budget, alongside an active diplomatic and defence strategy, helps keep Britain at the forefront of saving lives, alleviating poverty, and bringing freedom, security, and prosperity to all.

The international system is experiencing profound geopolitical, economic, and financial change. Authoritarian states hostile to British interests are actively seeking an increasing influence in world affairs. This means that democratic processes, and more fundamentally basic human freedoms, are coming under increasing threat.

But Britain can make a difference. Our proud history of fighting totalitarianism, combined with our membership of the UN Security Council, NATO and the Commonwealth and our hosting of the G7 Presidency in 2021, means we are uniquely placed to protect human rights, democracy, and freedom of the press, particularly in emerging and fragile states.

Britain’s international development expertise makes Britain and the world safer, stronger, and more prosperous.

When we tackle Ebola in Sierra Leone, prevent drug trafficking in Tanzania, and train Lebanese forces to fight Daesh, we help to prevent disease, drugs, and extremism from landing on Britain’s streets. When faced with no jobs, conflict, or disease, those in poorer countries are more likely to seek refuge in Europe or be attracted to extremist organisations.

Education, healthcare, jobs, underpinned by fairness, transparency, and a respect for the rule of law, are key to tackling the root causes of mass migration, destabilisation, and radicalisation, helping to make us all safer and our great country stronger.

The success of the new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, which will officially launch on 1st September, will depend on the extent to which our hard-earned, world-leading reputation as an international development superpower, is retained within the new department.

Countries can and should be empowered to stand on their own two feet, but to do this they need support to help them move through the stages of development and become partners in free trade and investment. In Britain, global free trade cuts the cost of living for working people and promotes choice and opportunity. The free market has been a pillar of human progress for centuries. Aid and development can unleash it, driving prosperity for all.

Britain should not be apologetic about seeking long-term diplomatic relationships that work in the national interest of both sides, but to bring about the trade that generates wealth, many countries need aid.

For as long as people stay poor, they will struggle to stand on their own two feet. Without an education, employers will not hire them. Without good local healthcare, they will be vulnerable to pandemics. And as we all know by now, pandemics don’t stop at borders. Regular sickness or injury will decimate a workforce and slow or halt economic growth. Without jobs people will struggle to take care of their families while paying little or no tax to their local authority. That means poor or non-existent health and education services, and so the cycle continues.

Focusing aid spending on poverty elimination is therefore not just morally right, it makes good economic sense too. The sooner we equip people with education, healthcare, and sustainable jobs, the less need there is for overseas aid in the long term.

We are eight months into a new decade, where Covid-19 and the resulting economic and political shocks have created opportunities for authoritarian regimes to push their agendas. As a result, human rights, individual freedoms, and the British values that have shaped the world are increasingly threatened.

It is in our national interest to counter that authoritarianism, win the battle of ideas, and stand up for the international rules-based system which Churchill and Thatcher did so much to shape and defend. It is also in our national interest to tackle the root causes of poverty.

Britain has always been a force for good: transforming lives, unleashing opportunity, and creating enormous British soft power. The new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office will have the potential to not only promote British values in a dangerous world, but also to turbo charge the tackling of the many root causes of poverty. If we get it right, both Britain and the world will be all the better for it.