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1 May 2023

Westminster is broken

Ian Dunt’s new book reveals Britain as a country of inept civil servants, deluded ministers, blinkered journalists and unscrutinised power.

By Harry Lambert

The strange thing about parliament is how incidental it feels so much of the time. That, at least, is what struck me when I worked in the lobby, or parliamentary press gallery, in 2022. I covered politics for this magazine during one of the more tumultuous years in British politics. I was fortunate enough to be in the same parliamentary committee room as Boris Johnson when he realised his government was going to fall. And yet the process of following politics from within the lobby was strangely dissatisfying. I couldn’t have asked for a grander narrative to cover than Johnson’s long descent, but there was something hollow about the way politics was treated within the parliamentary estate. I would sit in the Commons and feel as if the action was elsewhere.

Ian Dunt’s new book, How Westminster Works… and Why It Doesn’t, has explained that feeling to me. The problem, he points out, is that, “Once a policy has been passed, it effectively ceases to exist for the lobby.” Journalists examine proposed policies if they have a chance of provoking legislative or intra-party fights, but once policies have been turned into law, the pack moves on. Was the mass academisation of British schools in the early 2010s a good idea? Is mass university education? How has austerity impacted local government, bus routes, libraries, the judicial system, the selling off of the British state? These aren’t questions you tend to ask as a member of the parliamentary press. The focus is on what is happening now in parliament, this week – the consequences beyond Westminster are ignored.

New journalists, as Dunt puts it, “soon internalise the dynamics and the assumptions” of the lobby. Dunt quotes one newspaper editor’s verdict of his political team’s coverage: “To call it fast food is knocking it too much, but it’s immediate. It’s here and now. Their ability to think laterally is close to zero.”

I’m not sure that’s true: there are many fine journalists in Westminster. But there does seem to be something structurally wrong with the way politics is covered in Britain. All the power of the political press is wielded by lobby journalists, so there is little use in others outside of the lobby covering the consequences of policy. Most of the time, the formidable reporters of Westminster are only focused on stories that fall into one of three boxes: Tory-Labour fights, intra-Tory fights and intra-Labour fights. If an issue does not fit into one of these boxes – the disastrous rise in homelessness over the 2010s, for instance – politicians can usually get away without being scrutinised.

Dunt begins his excellent book with one such example: the mindless decision of Chris Grayling, then the justice secretary, to privatise the probation service in 2013. “The project could fall apart in five years if needs be. By then, it would all be a distant memory,” Dunt writes, capturing the mindset of ministers on the make. Grayling wanted to “unleash the dynamism of the free market on the sclerotic world of criminal justice”. But there was a problem with his plan. By introducing a payment-by-results model, where probation providers were paid according to reoffending rates, it created a set of destructive incentives. Reoffending was too unpredictable to be attributed to a single cause: it made no sense to pay according to results, which did not correlate with the work probation officers did. As a consequence, providers simply cut costs instead. The probation system was also torn in two, with officers being randomly assigned to specialise in either the most traumatic and difficult cases or in lesser tasks.

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“The most harrowing thing” about Grayling, Dunt writes, “is that he is a completely standard example of the quality of the ministerial class in Britain.” But this book is more than a harangue about why we get the wrong politicians. It explains, chapter by chapter, the classes of people who hold political power in the UK: from the voters (once in a while) to parliament (barely at all), the prime minister (less than you think), cabinet ministers (more than you think), the Treasury (just as much as you think), the civil service and the press.

Dunt is skilled at disentangling the minutiae of political process and explaining who actually gets to wield power when. He is a lucid writer with an easy style, and he has interviewed people from each part of the system. Nick Clegg is here, for instance, reflecting on how remarkably little time he spent as deputy prime minister “worrying about getting stuff through” parliament. The Commons, as Clegg reflects and Dunt details, falls some way short of its famous moniker as the mother of all parliaments. Unlike many other legislative chambers, it does not even control its own timetable – the government does.

The book is at its most illuminating when it focuses on one of the least scrutinised power blocs in the UK: the civil service. Dunt cites the example of Antonia Romeo, the civil servant who carried out Grayling’s ruinous probation reform, which was cancelled in 2018 after offences spiked, costs spiralled and probation providers went bankrupt. Romeo was nevertheless promoted. “No one lost their job, or was penalised, or even rebuked,” Dunt writes, echoing Dominic Cummings’s fundamental criticism of the civil service, that promotion bears no relation to performance.

The shortcomings of the civil service were even more evident in the government’s catastrophic evacuation of Kabul in 2021. As with Grayling, a feckless minister was ultimately responsible (the then foreign secretary Dominic Raab), but the civil service – the supposed Rolls-Royce of British government – failed spectacularly to prepare for or carry out the evacuation, unlike the French, who withdrew their people months in advance.

The only reason we know quite how badly Britain handled this is because of a pair of Foreign Office whistle-blowers, Raphael Marshall and Josie Stewart, who sacrificed their civil service careers to detail the disaster. Their account would be comic if it wasn’t so grave. The civil servants dealing with evacuation requests had no knowledge of Afghanistan, and the leader of the team referred to Afghans as “Afghanis”, the name of the currency. Fewer than 5 per cent of those who requested assistance received any. The civil servant in charge of the Foreign Office at the time, Philip Barton, remains in post. A similar pattern is playing out in Sudan, where, although Britain quickly rescued a small number of diplomatic staff, Germany and France had evacuated hundreds of their citizens before Britain’s first civilian evacuation flight left Khartoum on 25 April.

“It is not about the failure of a particular project. It is systematic and existential,” Dunt writes. “In short,” he says, prefiguring Succession’s Logan Roy, “it is about whether this is a serious country or not.” Any reader of this essential guide will struggle to conclude that we are. Dunt diverges from other books bemoaning the state of our politics: they often call for an elected House of Lords, but he argues it is “one of the best-functioning institutions in Westminster”, rigorously evaluating bills in a way the Commons does not. “There is no need at all to make the Lords democratic.”

Dunt’s analysis is refreshingly focused on reality, rather than academic abstraction. When he advocates change, it is because his book has shown how an existing set of incentives is ensuring failure. Read it and you will see just how deep our problems run.

How Westminster Works… and Why It Doesn’t
Ian Dunt
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 448pp, £18.99

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[See also: Westminster Reimagined]

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown