Politics - Richard Reeves tells the time unaided

The arrival of more management consultants at Downing Street bodes ill. Rather than injecting real b

A favoured definition of a management consultant is someone who borrows your watch, tells you the time, then charges you for the information. Dilbert, the cartoon character created by Scott Adams, says: "It takes more than a brilliant analytical mind to be a business consultant . . . You also need to be arrogant and socially dysfunctional."

Consultants are taken very seriously in Westminster and Whitehall. David Bennett, the new head of policy in Downing Street, is a former partner of McKinsey, the bluest of the blue-chip strategy consultancies, known because of its influence as the Brotherhood. He joins a cluster of former Brothers in No 10 - John Birt, Adair Turner and Nick Lovegrove. Their influence is rattling unions and rank-and-file MPs. (They may be worrying too much: remember that William Hague, too, is ex-McKinsey.)

The appeal of the Brothers to Blair has three dimensions: brainpower, an apparent knowledge of the business world, and lack of ideological conviction. McKinsey attracts the cream of graduates. When it comes to intellectual ability, they leave MPs and most special advisers in the dust.

And their confidence is unshakeable. You never hear phrases such as "er, I'm not sure about that" or "perhaps I got that wrong" from a Brother.

At the same time, the McKinseyites' lack of ideology, tribal loyalty and strong party affiliation are all huge pluses for the Prime Minister. The Guardian waspishly pointed out that Bennett "has no experience of politics or government". But that's the whole point of consultants. They often have no experience of working in their commercial clients' sector, either. Consultants are experts only in their own expertise.

And if politics has indeed become an essentially technocratic exercise, bright management consultants make good partners. Unhindered by history and free of political philosophy, they are interested only in finding the right technical solution to any given problem, from NHS reform to the national curriculum. If "what counts is what works", McKinsey is more help than Marx. If a McKinseyite thinks that Tawney is a bird, who cares?

The Brothers also seem to bring into the government something that Blair lacks, envies and admires: business savvy. One of the great weaknesses of Labour administrations has been their want of experience on the commercial side of life. It was said of the group around John F Kennedy that "listening to them talk about business was like listening to a bunch of nuns talk about sex". This is a fair description of some conversations in the Blair inner circle.

The problem is that the consultants don't know much more about business than the Blairites. They are paid outsiders. They have no more experience of running large organisations than the current cabinet - a case of the blind leading the blind. The absence of management experience is one of the reasons why business is radically re-examining the role of consultants. Chief executive officers are getting better at hiring specialists to perform specific tasks, rather than taking on a big-brand consulting house to do them all.

There is a growing recognition that strategy is not the most important ingredient of commercial success. What really counts is implementation - or execution. But the Brothers typically join the Firm straight from business school or university. They are extremely clever, but most of them couldn't execute a three-point turn. Public services need another round of clever strategising like a hole in the head. The challenge for public service reform is not the creation of new ideas; it is the successful implementation of existing ones.

Successful business leaders are those who set a clear path and then diligently and quietly manage their organisation along it. These bosses, dubbed "Level 5" leaders in the corporate world, are rarely flashy or charismatic; they stick at their task for decades rather than jumping on to a new challenge every few years; and they actively cultivate successors to be more successful than they have been. In other words, they are the very antithesis of the modern politician, or indeed the modern consultant. The great irony is that rather than injecting some real business experience into government, Blair is recruiting in his own image.

It would not be too unkind to suggest that politicians and civil servants act as powerful leading contra-indicators of business practice, embracing hotdesking, Total Quality Management and re-engineering just as these were passing out of favour in the boardroom. And so it should come as no surprise that a blue-chip management consultant has been appointed to run the Policy Unit just as senior business leaders begin to turn away

from blue-chip strategy consultancies.

This is the latest in a series of political columns by guest writers

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Latin America rises up