“Not up to it, I’m afraid.” Clement Attlee’s reported dismissal of a minister who’d asked him why he was being fired represents, in summary, the hostile positions held on both sides: on one, Liz Truss‘s cabinet; on the other its opponents – the markets, spurned European capitals and even Washington DC.
The question is urgent following the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ warning that Britain needs to make £62bn of cuts to balance the books, which means cuts of 15 per cent to all departments outside of health and defence. These are politically undeliverable and the collapse of this government is now entirely possible.
So here I am, talking down Britain. No, I’m not. I’m talking down its political establishment. The chaotic period after Brexit, with the constitution pushed to breaking point, parliamentary deadlocks, mass sackings, and the incompetently run Downing Street during the Johnson administration, followed by the disaster of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget and a growing realisation that the Prime Minister does not have a majority for her programme – this is a record of mayhem.
And some of it is down to sheer political incompetence. Launching the Energy Bills Support Scheme ahead of controversial mini-Budget measures; not understanding the impact of the decision to abolish the 45p tax rate; forming a government only of personal supporters; and, before those actions, failing to control special advisers in Whitehall and allowing the support of MPs, on whom power depends, to drift away – all these moves have been grade-failing GCSE-level howlers.
This cabinet, similar to the last cabinet, just doesn’t seem to be adept at politics, or communication, or running complicated organisations. It’s almost as if British politics has lost its institutional memory. True, Liz Truss has filled many roles in government. We knew, long before she became leader, that she was tenacious in seeing through problems she’d been set by others, rigid in her views and a bad communicator. But much of the rest of the cabinet is relatively new at the top table. And the top table is an exposing place.
It would be easier if the ministers in cabinet had more experience of working life. When I started to report on parliament in 1984, the Tory benches were crammed with people who had run their own businesses. They knew how to read a balance sheet. They had experience in firing people and staying up all night worrying about cash flow. On the Labour side, there were sheet-metal workers, miners, social workers and teachers. There are weathered people still in parliament but they are being edged out by those who decided to go into politics from university, who perhaps took a research job with an MP or a trade union and graduated to party headquarters before landing a seat.
This, however, is a familiar whinge; let’s look at the other end of the story. Politics at the top would be different if the cabinet was augmented by people with experience of listening to civil servants, reading data, knowing how to influence a cantankerous media and who understood the stratagems needed for success in cabinet committee – people with guile and scars. And they’re around. They’re just not in politics.
Unlike the Americans, and many European polities, our system sucks in people without much life or management experience, but then, as soon as they’re in danger of knowing what they’re doing, it expels them. Too many politicians struggle to reach the top and then, once they feel their moment is over, disappear from politics. Recently William Hague, a thoroughly experienced man, launched a comprehensive broadside against the Truss cabinet programme. He is only 61.
Boris Johnson is 58, Theresa May is 66, David Cameron is 56, Jeremy Hunt, who is admittedly still in the House of Commons, 55, David Gauke, of this parish, 51, while the former flag-bearer of liberal Toryism, Rory Stewart, is just 49. We know why they’re out. Endless internal feuding expelled one Tory generation after another. Like the political analogue of a noisy leaf blower, the Brexit feuds blasted away experience – think also of Sajid Javid and Philip Hammond. Too much of the brainpower that might have given the current cabinet stability and heft is piled up neatly on life’s kerb.
Of course, it is a comfortable kerb. Once politicians have been dismissed, they discover the lucrative post-politics lives that a private sector led by the City can offer. Advisory roles! Chairmanships! Corporate speaking tours! Book deals! These are often being-something, rather than doing-something, positions. Former senior ministers find, to their shock and pleasure, it is possible to live richly in modern Britain without constant public hostility.
Does a similar argument apply to the opposition? It is so long since Labour was in power that it’s harder to make. But at 69, Tony Blair isn’t old by modern standards – nor is Gordon Brown, still advising his party at 71, nor Harriet Harman at 72, nor Alan Milburn at 64. Among the Lib Dems with government experience, Nick Clegg, 55, is working for corporate America; Vince Cable, at 79, is a retired but a wise old owl.
Collectively they represent a huge loss of political experience at the top of our system. I’m not saying that all were political geniuses – still less that I agreed with their politics – but they learned how to work Whitehall; they understood procedure, electoral possibilities and policy choices.
There are counter-examples. Ken Clarke came back after his first cabinet years under Margaret Thatcher to serve later Tory leaders. Brown is still in the game, as is Manchester’s Andy Burnham. But there are, for instance, no politicians immediately around Keir Starmer with any direct experience in government.
[See also: The Brexit revolution devours its children]
More generally this is also about a political culture that curtsies nicely to the cult of the amateur, and that’s a very British perversion. Whitehall departments are complex organisations that need leaders of greater skill and training more than most private companies do. What they get are untrained MPs who happened to be in the right cabal, are only passing through and who, in pre-politics life, have run only a basin or a garden hose.
Private-sector Britain contains plenty of failure and chaos, too. It suffers from a lack of consistency of ownership, and a focus on short-term dividends at the expense of investment – faults that have been attacked for years by writers such as Will Hutton.
Those who run large, private organisations tend to have learned on the job for a long time. Many have been trained in schools of management, often in the US. There are hundreds of well-known books to help them upgrade their skills. Corporate management culture has its silly side – the excessive pay, the golf obsession – but it is generally intense, focused and serious.
In Britain we sneer at it for reasons I have never understood. Our heroes are sporting and cultural, or, on the right of politics, entrepreneurs. We dream of young people in tiny back rooms creating extraordinary music or dramas; and of tech-hub innovators in coffee shops with open laptops, somehow generating wealth out of thin air. We don’t dream or talk about the people who run the institutions on which we all depend – the hospital or railway system managers, the chief operating officers of broadband or delivery companies, the regional managers of banks or supermarkets.
Indeed, it’s worse than that: from The Office to conference promises to “slash back the layers of management”, our culture assumes that if you run an organisation, you’re a public enemy or a fool.
Something profound has gone wrong at the top of our political culture. It’s about experience, training and seriousness. Mostly we blame party politics, but if Westminster recruits the wrong people, fails to train them, then loses its institutional memory and despises management, are we surprised that this autumn, yet again, we’re in a spot of bother?
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?