The Tory right declares war on Whitehall

A new report argues that the civil service is blocking radical public service reform.

When storm clouds are gathering over the world economy - when the BBC can run a survey of experts under the headline "has Western capitalism failed?" - it is expecting a lot for people to pay much heed to a parliamentary select committee report on civil service reform.

Nonetheless, this particular intervention by the public administration select committee is worth noticing, even if just in a short break between cold sweats about the imminent financial apocalypse.

The gist of the report is that the coalition's plans to reform public services are running up against a civil service culture of inertia and that they risk being smothered to death by bureaucracy. At the top of the list of ideas whose implementation is jeopardised, according to committee chair, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, is "the big society" - the prime minister's pet project. If there weren't so many scarier things going on this would surely have turned into a load of "MPs say Big Society won't work (again)" headlines.

Jenkin is on the right of the party and, from what I have seen, likes to think of himself as a provocateur but not a trouble-maker; an independent character but not an awkward-squaddie. This report is surely being packaged up and presented as a cache of ammunition to assist those inside Downing Street who argue that the government needs to press ahead much more boldly with the break-up of what they see as failed public sector monopolies. That faction sees Whitehall mandarins as the praetorian guard of outmoded statism.

Back in February, David Cameron was marching to that drum, promising to bring private or voluntary sector competition to every aspect of what the state does, sparing only the military and courts. But the anti-state maximalists (whose high priest is chief Cameron advisor Steve Hilton) were held back by an informal alliance of Lib Dems and sceptical Tory tacticians. They feared that a fanfare of noisy public sector radicalism would raise voter alarm, feed into an opposition narrative of slash-and-burn privatising fanaticism and generally cause more trouble than it would be worth. The whole NHS debacle seriously killed the mood for big public sector changes - not least by putting George Osborne, the most powerful figure in government after the PM, off the idea.

This division inside government produced, after much wrangling and delay, the white paper on Open Public Services. (It was launched in the middle of the phone-hacking furore in July, so no-one noticed.) The white paper promises lots of consultation and consideration of radical reforms, but few cast iron commitments. The whole process of getting even that far exhausted ministers. One very senior member of the cabinet described it to me as "the biggest coalition arm-wrestle" behind the scenes so far. Then there were riots, Libya to think about ... the whole thing just went off the boil.

But the Thatcherite purist end of the Conservative party hasn't forgotten and my guess is that this report is being framed as a way to get things boiling again. Jenkin has a piece plugging the report on ConservativeHome today. He also made a speech launching the report, which ended thus: "We are proposing a special inquiry into the role and functions of the Head of the Civil Service. What does that title mean? What should it mean? So watch this space!"

In the staid language of select committees that is a quiet declaration of war on Whitehall.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.