Britain is blunder-prone and badly governed. I argued as much ten years ago in The Blunders of Our Governments, with the late Anthony King. That study of policy failures spanned the premierships of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown. Each had chalked up some notable achievements, but the roll call of fiascos revealed a dysfunctional system of government that failed the public.
We selected a dozen horror stories as case studies. These included the poll tax, the mis-selling of private pensions, the shambolic exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the Millennium Dome flop, the bungled implementation of tax credits, the eye-watering losses incurred by the modernisation of the London Underground via a private finance initiative, and the abandoned digitisation of the NHS patient data base. In every case, the government embarked on a major initiative, failed to engage seriously with experts and ordinary users, and eventually ditched or reversed the policy, leaving a trail of massive financial loss, human distress, or both.
Ten years on, I am preparing a new edition of Blunders, covering the coalition and Conservative governments since 2010. There is no shortage of material. Good government is difficult. The electoral cycle and party competition get in the way of long term policies. Ministers must sometimes make urgent judgements which are defensible but wrong, such as the timing of the first Covid lockdown in late March 2020. All blunders are mistakes but not all mistakes are blunders.
So which failures since 2010 make the final cut? The repeated degradation of constitutional norms that defaced the Boris Johnson years do not qualify. Neither do the cases of delinquent administration for which government ministers cannot be held primarily responsible, such as the delays in compensation for victims of the infected blood, Post Office and Windrush scandals; and the multi-billion pound frauds and unretrieved losses under the various Covid business loan schemes. That still leaves a long catalogue of blunders, which have been whittled down to a list of ten, in chronological order.
First, austerity. George Osborne’s deficit-reduction strategy from 2010 to 2016 missed its fiscal targets, failed to capitalise on historically low borrowing costs, and thus denuded public services, especially the NHS and local authorities, leaving the UK fatally exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Second, the 2012 structural reforms to the NHS carried out by Andrew Lansley, the health secretary. These led to sappingly expensive disruption without any improvement in NHS performance.
Third, the HS2 inter-city high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Conceived under Labour and signed off by the coalition in 2012, it promised to relieve the west and east coast mainlines, cut inter-city journey times and reinvigorate the north. Phase one has incurred huge cost overruns and long delays, while phases two and three north of Birmingham have been abandoned by Rishi Sunak, and the new terminal at Euston has been mothballed until private capital can be found for it. The project was condemned from its inception by the National Audit Office, and in July the Infrastructure and Projects Authority declared that successful delivery was “unachievable”.
Fourth, the 2013 Help to Buy housing programme, which, by increasing demand more than supply in areas with the greatest shortages, made housing even more unaffordable for the first-time buyers it was intended to help. Fifth, Chris Grayling’s privatisation of the probation service, launched in 2015 and reversed in 2018 after having destroyed the national rehabilitation system, forfeited the confidence of the courts, and bankrupted the private providers. (This blunder is brilliantly described in the opening chapter of Ian Dunt’s How Westminster Works… and Why It Doesn’t.)
[See also: Brexit has made the EU less liberal and open]
Sixth, David Cameron’s decision in 2015 to hold an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union. It is no less a blunder for being so widely identified as one. It encapsulated what a blunder is: a decision that failed spectacularly to achieve its objectives. Intended to confirm UK membership for a generation, see off Ukip’s electoral threat to the Conservatives and settle internal party divisions over Europe, the referendum backfired on every count, with Cameron announcing his resignation on the morning after the result in June 2016. Brexit proved to be a blunder twice over, when Theresa May’s government rushed to trigger Article 50 to begin the departure process in March 2017. May did so without sufficient time to prepare for the time-limited negotiations, and then committed prematurely to a pure Brexit as distinct from continuing association with the EU in some form.
The eighth, ninth and tenth blunders of the period start first with Covid. Multiple avoidable errors were made in the management of the pandemic, which cost many lives and wasted billions of pounds. These included the early discharge of elderly Covid sufferers to care homes; the mishandled procurement of effective personal protective equipment, which entailed huge waste and fraud; the failed and very expensive gamble on creating a “world-beating”, centrally driven test-and-trace system; and Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which spread the virus. Some of these blunders originated in earlier mistakes, notably the austerity-driven scarcity of intensive care units (the number per capita was exceptionally low by European standards) and the failure to replenish stocks of protective equipment while the sun was shining.
The pandemic was succeeded by two egregious acts of incompetence which added to the sense that the government no longer knew how to run Britain, beginning with the botched evacuation from Afghanistan in August 2021 of British soldiers and civilians, and of local staff and allies at risk, after the Taliban takeover. A better planned and prioritised evacuation would have saved many lives.
This was followed by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget in September 2022. Designed to kickstart economic growth, it immediately spooked the currency and bond markets, triggered a spike in interest and mortgage rates and put pension funds at risk of default. Kwarteng was sacked as chancellor and the main provisions of the Budget were swiftly ditched by his successor.
This catalogue of errors omits less obvious failures of neglect. The structural weaknesses of a deficient social care system; stagnant productivity; and widening regional inequalities inherited in 2010 remained unaddressed. The 2022 Levelling Up White Paper set out a serious cross-departmental strategy but was strangled at birth by the Treasury’s veto on the public investment required. Nor have the post-2010 governments made real progress on the emerging challenges of ensuring a sustainable NHS; an energy-efficient housing stock; a re-designed tax system; and the decades-old aspiration to a German-quality vocational training system. Only on climate change have the post-2010 governments devised a plausible strategy, albeit one that is now under threat.
The quality of a government should be judged by its policy successes as well as blunders. This is where the picture since 2010 differs most markedly from the previous thirty years. The governments from 1980 to 2010 began a number of major initiatives that achieved their (sometimes fiercely contested) idea of the public good. The Thatcher and Major administrations could point to the Employment and Trade Union Acts, the Big Bang deregulation of the City, some of the privatisations (namely British Telecom and British Gas), the sale of council houses, the attraction of the Nissan car factory to Sunderland, and the introduction of the reading and literacy hours in primary schools.
The Blair and Brown governments could point to the independence of the Bank of England, the national minimum wage, the steady reduction of NHS waiting lists, the smoking ban in public spaces, the establishment of city academies, the Pensions Act 2007 that reduced old age poverty, and Gordon Brown’s leadership of the international response to the global financial crisis. These were all reminders that governments could develop and implement reforms for the public welfare, at least as they defined it.
A notable feature of the period since 2010 is how sparse the equivalent list of successes is. Conservatives I have canvassed come up with very little. The Marriage Act 2013, which legalised same-sex marriage, certainly belongs on the list. So does the 2012 Olympics (although tellingly that was a cross-party project from the beginning), along with the Johnson government’s Covid vaccination programme, its proudest boast.
Auto-enrolment in workplace pensions scrambles onto the list, because it has increased the number of low-income workers with pensions, although contribution rates are too low. So too does the consolidation of various working-age benefits into Universal Credit, which despite its bungled implementation in 2013 proved its worth during the Covid lockdowns.
On the watchlist are the creation of more metro mayors, government investment in the life sciences and the expansion of wind power. A commendable mention goes to Cameron’s opening up of the parliamentary Conservative Party to ethnic minorities. But that is about all. It is thin pickings for a 13-year stretch of government.
Why is the record so thin? In some cases the obduracy, delusions, or haplessness of a minister is to blame but this raises two questions. Why were these ministers over-promoted? And why were their blunders not stopped or blunted by institutional constraints? That is the question to ask about Grayling’s reform of probation, Dominic Raab’s oversight of the Afghan evacuation, and of Kwarteng’s Budget, while also recognising that all were out of their depth. The only post-2010 blunder that can be exclusively attributed to personal error was Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit referendum, the product of a cavalier self-confidence.
Policy blunders are unforced errors. UK governments are prone to unnecessary failure because they operate in a system that, compared with other mature democracies, lacks the institutions and the culture to mitigate it. The formal checks and balances that scrutinise and restrain executive power in the majority of democratic states are absent or feeble in the UK. The first-past-the-post electoral system usually produces a single-party majority government. Government ministers make policy decisions confident that in normal times these will not be effectively scrutinised, materially revised or defeated in parliament, nor struck down by the courts, impeded by a coalition partner or – at least in England – limited by the independent powers of a regional government. The only significant check comes from the minister’s own backbenchers, driven by the elemental fear of electoral defeat.
Ministers exercise all but untrammelled executive power and are rarely held to account. The rapid turnover of ministers and senior officials, which has accelerated in the volatile years since Brexit, spares them: they have moved on by the time their blunders fully materialise. Since 2010 only three ministers have resigned because of a conspicuous policy failure – Cameron, Kwarteng and Truss – and only one, Raab when foreign secretary, has been demoted. The overwhelming majority of sackings outside cabinet reshuffles follow personal scandal, not policy failure.
The exceptionally strong form of government empowered by the UK’s constitutional arrangements could be the foundation for effective policy. The governments of most democracies abroad do not have the same advantages. Ministers with some experience of planning and overseeing change – and with a pragmatic regard for evidence, feedback and the interplay of organised interests – have the powers at their disposal for successful reform. But in the hands of the wrong ministers, those same powers enable disasters.
The original edition of Blunders identified features of the country’s governing class that encouraged their mistakes. One is the enlistment of senior ministers from only 300 or so MPs, themselves selected by a small number of local party members who were not necessarily looking for ministerial ability. This is an exceptionally limited recruitment pool by international standards. Ministers are typically appointed with an eye to the management of party factions and personal rivalries, rather than their suitability for their department by way of experience or knowledge. The pool was narrowed even further after 2016 by May and Johnson’s need to appoint Brexiteers from their riven party, irrespective of capability.
A second feature is the place of intellectual prejudice, as distinct from open-minded pragmatism, in ministerial decision-making. The most noticeable change since 2010 has been the part played by ideological dogmatism. It reflects the steady transformation of the Conservative Party from one that sets store on the practice of government to one that sets store on ideas for it. The pointless Lansley reforms, the outsourcing fiascos, the abortive privatisation of the probation service, the profligate Test and Trace programme, and Kwarteng’s mini-Budget were all the product of unquestioning faith in the market, a prejudice against the public sector, and the dismissal of professional warnings and awkward evidence. The mishandling of the Brexit trade agreement was the inevitable result of a hard Brexit mutating from one of a range of options in 2016 to an article of faith by 2019.
A third is the deficit of non-partisan policy deliberation in the UK system. But deliberative institutions such as pre-legislative scrutiny committees and formal public consultations are absent from the UK system, as is a deliberative culture in the adversarial and partisan environment of Westminster. The doctors’ Hippocratic oath – “First, do no harm” – would serve equally well as the overriding principle of government. But unaccountable concentrations of executive power, ideological dogmatism, a limited ministerial talent pool and the absence of meaningful policy deliberation all work against it. So long as they remain distinctive features of the system, British governments will continue to be prone to blunders.
[See also: Fools, frauds and firebrands]