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

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.