Time for a new axis at the centre

Westminster - Anne Perkins

Blairite insiders are talking again about the need for a stronger centre of government. "Anyone who spends any time at No 10 quickly realises that it is a tiny corner of a huge government machine," Philip Gould wrote in the preface to the paperback edition of The Unfinished Revolution, his account of how Labour got to where it is, "staffed with talented people but lacking the resources necessary to be a commanding and dominating nerve centre."

He's not the only one with Tony Blair's ear proselytising for a centre better able to harmonise the efforts of every government department with Downing Street objectives (and then promote them), whatever the cost in renewed accusations of control-freakery. In private conversations, Cabinet Office ministers are fretting at what they see as the imperial style of permanent secretaries and their ministers and their inability to see the big picture. Far from being in control, the people at the centre clearly feel they are at the mercy of departmental colleagues with their own policy objectives.

This should not be dismissed as a case of bruised egos and grumpy gossip from ministers who feel they have been shafted by Downing Street's determination to crawl over every dot and comma of their policy. (John Prescott is not alone in feeling that the rug has been pulled from under him. Other ministers who are seen as less-than-full signatories to the project, such as Margaret Beckett when she was at the Department of Trade and Industry, still smart from brushes with the knuckle-dusters at No 10.) However justified their complaints may be about the death of cabinet government, there's enough evidence about the failure of Whitehall to function coherently to make the lunch-time moaning of politicians at the centre a subject for serious consideration.

They will take much comfort from the Whitehall Project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which has been reviewing the way government works for the past five years and is now on the brink of publishing its findings. Much of the research was done during the Major years. John Major, no one now remembers, was chosen to lead the Tories precisely because he would reverse the years of Thatcher autocracy. It was only after he had done so and restored cabinet government that everyone remembered how awkward it was to have 17 or 18 baronies, each with ambitions to achieve and territory to preserve, entirely oblivious of the knock-on effect on other departments or, more importantly, the government's central objectives. "It often feels like a very hostile world out there," an unnamed ex-prime minister who could only have been John Major is quoted as saying, "and the fact was I could do very little about it."

There was a time when the awkwardness of running cabinet and finding consensus, or at least a majority view, was held up as one of the crowning glories of the British system. But Blair's circle, admirers of the Thatcher style, don't want negotiation and compromise, they want delivery, and delivery on those pledges that are turning that innocent little card every frontbencher had in his pocket in the run-up to the election into something as weighty and foul-smelling as a dead albatross.

Ironically, it was the Thatcher reforms of Whitehall, the introduction of agencies and quasi-markets and greater autonomy, that have made the centre even less able to control delivery than it was before. There may be greater transparency, and public services may be more accountable, but not to the Prime Minister. Professor Rod Rhodes, the Newcastle academic who masterminded the Whitehall programme, argues that government has got harder to steer and the centre is for ever struggling, not, as popular perception would have it, to take control, but simply to avoid being pulled apart by rival departmental warlords. That is the justification for the parallel Whitehall that is quietly sprouting behind the Downing Street walls.

Rhodes is gloomy, though, about the outcome of Labour's attempts to introduce joined-up government from No 10. "[It] runs the ever-present risk of recalcitrance from key actors and a loss of flexibility in dealing with local problems," he remarks. He fingers the Blairite determination to impose objectives from the centre as inevitably producing ever greater demands for central control.

It is the Treasury that emerges as the real force for integration of objectives. "The Treasury has a clear set of views on social policy programmes, which are vigorously pursued. These relate not just to the level of expenditure on social policy but also to their content," concluded the Whitehall programme after research conducted when Kenneth Clarke, not Gordon Brown, was still chancellor.

When, during the Kosovo crisis, the cry went up of: "Where's Gordon?", the reply should have been: "Running the country." If the power to sign the cheques makes it inherently the strongest of controlling forces, Brown brings to the Treasury a new focus on policy objectives across Whitehall.

However earnestly the neighbours at No 10 pick over detail, it is he who, freed by his own reforms to the Bank of England and with spending totals now fixed, has both the detailed, day-to-day grasp of policy development and the time, energy and determination to use it. In the Cabinet Office, with its mission to co-ordinate a developing role in cross-departmental policy-making, he has a willing partner. Whitehall has always been good at improvising solutions. An informal Treasury/ Cabinet Office axis may be the answer to the mounting concerns at the very top about delivery. Like all solutions to problems, it may contain problems of its own. But let's win the election first.

Steve Richards is on holiday