Francis Maude is playing the accordion. The minister for the Cabinet Office is not performing on a musical instrument as such. He is toying with a narrow strip of paper that has been folded back and forth several times, compressing it absent-mindedly between forefinger and thumb as he speaks. Maude's style is notoriously insouciant, verging on languid. The origami concertina, the open-necked shirt and slicked-back silver hair combine to give the impression of a man who talks about government policy much as he might stroll down a Paris boulevard humming a chanson. In fact, he is sitting on a sofa in his functional Whitehall office talking about public-sector reforms. The busker's breeziness is just his manner.
“The whole point is you want to unleash different ways of doing things - innovative ways of doing things," he says. Maude speaks with the kind of polished, public school drawl that is usually cast as the voice for laconic villains in Disney cartoons. Imagine Shere Kahn from The Jungle Book talking about accountability in the public services.
On 7 July Maude's department released a cache of information about the performance of services across a range of departments: Health, Education, Justice, Transport. The aim was to show how different parts of the state perform and, crucially, how uneven performance across the country can be. The idea is that people, armed with this information, should start demanding better service. Maude anticipates that they will increasingly see themselves less as captive customers of a monolithic state and more as sceptical consumers. That in turn should make them more receptive to the government's plans to introduce greater choice and competition. "What will be disclosed is very big disparities, and the exposure of those disparities vindicates the approach to public-service reform."
“Blairism on steroids"
Transparency is the official theme of Maude's micro-accordion concert and he strives to stick to the score. But this is just the prelude to a more significant announcement, provisionally due on 14 July: the belated launch of the government white paper on public-sector reform.
It is hard to overstate the importance this document has acquired inside the coalition, though its existence has barely registered with the public. The reform plan was conceived as a grand blueprint to transform the state - the sacred text of David Cameron's "big society" - but its genesis has been tortuous. Although technically a responsibility of the Cabinet Office, it has been through an odyssey of drafts and been tossed about in arguments between ministers and advisers over how revolutionary the reforms should be.
The original model, inspired by Cameron's chief policy adviser, Steve Hilton, was ultra-radical. On 20 February, the Prime Minister declared that the proposals would "release the grip of state control" in every area of public life. National monopolies would be broken up. Only the military and the courts would be exempt. Everything that the state once did would soon be done by private companies, charities and social enterprises, or co-operatives formed by existing public-sector workers. But the announcement failed to prompt a wave of rejoicing at anticipated liberation from the state. It provoked instead a rash of headlines suggesting that the Tories were about to privatise and outsource anything that moved.
By the end of February, Downing Street had noticed the storm clouds gathering over planned reforms to the National Health Service, and the white paper was shelved. "You couldn't really come out with a vision of public-sector reform during that period," says a No 10 insider. "It was such a delicate process."
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, led on this matter by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, were pushing a watered-down version of the proposals. The junior coalition party felt queasy about the Tories' zeal for "Maoist" revolution on all fronts. They wanted a milder document that would set out broad principles of reform, to be applied gradually, case by case. No big bangs. For Hilton, that incremental approach betrayed the whole spirit of the thing.
“Behind the scenes this has been one of the biggest coalition arm-wrestling matches," says one cabinet minister closely involved in the process. The tussle now appears to have been resolved, however, and both sides claim to be satisfied with the compromise. "It doesn't deliver everything that Steve Hilton would have wanted and it doesn't deliver everything that we would have wanted," concedes a senior Lib Dem. A Conservative friend of Hilton's says the white paper scores "eight out of ten" in terms of reforming radicalism.
The delayed launch is being planned in No 10 to signal that, contrary to recent reports of stagnation and habitual U-turns, the government has not lost its sense of direction or its reformist mojo. A Cameron aide describes the white paper as "Blairism on steroids".
Maude is also keen to stress continuity with Tony Blair's agenda. "Labour embraced the approach of saying public services do not need to be delivered by the public sector," he says. "They went down the path of what appeared to be a binary choice. It was either done in-house by a hierarchical, command-and-control, monolithic, monopoly, public-sector provider, or it was totally outsourced to a for-profit private provider. We're in a richer landscape."
Maude is particularly enthusiastic about mutualisation - public-sector workers taking collective ownership of services. To promote this idea, he has appointed a "mutuals task force", chaired by the former Blair adviser and professor at the London School of Economics Julian Le Grand. The group has discussed an informal target of seeing a million public-sector workers - one in six - eventually owning a share of the services they run.
There is, I note, nothing in that model to stop trade unions from taking control of public services through their members. Maude seems almost enthused by the idea. "Nothing at all! There is a bit of interest in that." Really? Interest from whom, I wonder. Maude's languor suddenly congeals with caution. "You'd need to get that to come through the unions. Not me." But does that mean he expects the unions might not be completely hostile to the white paper? "Some will be. The leadership of the PCS [Public and Commercial Services] union will, because Mark Serwotka is unreconstructed, but that's fine. I don't think he carries his membership with him. I think others take a more pragmatic view. I don't think the unions will see this as any casus belli."
Maude certainly doesn't need another confrontation with organised labour. He and Alexander are busy enough leading the government's discussions with the unions over public-sector pension reforms. He won't be drawn on the detail of negotiations, noting only that the coalition presents a united front. "We operate seamlessly."
But the Lib Dems, I understand, have been signalling that they are the more amenable face of the coalition; that a deal with them is the best option on the table because there is no imminent prospect of a Labour government and the Tories governing alone would be ideologically implacable. So is there a good cop/bad cop routine? "We alternate, and not in a particularly planned way. Danny's the Treasury hard man. It works very well." What about the ideological battle over the white paper? Where does Maude sit in the spectrum between Hiltonian ultras and Alexandrian gradualists?
The "p" word
The accordion stops. "We are absolutely in the arena of very radical opening up." Does he accept that there was anxiety about the scale of
reform? "A lot of journalists have written: 'Is this a return to 1980s privatisation?' The answer is, actually, in the 1980s there wasn't a huge amount of outsourcing of public services. It was very politically contentious then, and there wasn't much of it done."
It is nonetheless revealing how, in the case of NHS reforms, for instance, even the notion of privatisation seemed toxic. The Health Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister all had to deny repeatedly that it was part of their agenda. Maude, too, seems mildly allergic to the "p" word. "Privatisation in the sense that 'we're going to sell off the NHS' was never a possibility. Privatisation - I mean a mixed economy, as in there being more private providers, which was a path that Labour went down - we're perfectly relaxed about."
It is hard to conceive of much that Francis Maude isn't perfectly relaxed about. Perhaps that is the privilege of the political veteran. He was first elected to parliament at the age of 30; he is now 58. For a man who is about to oversee the dismantling of nearly all public services as we know them, he seems unperturbed by the prospect of controversy. "The whole process of opening up to much more diverse provision is not politically contentious any more." So he hopes. The accordion is put away. The recital is over.
Rafael Behr is chief political commentator of the New Statesman