Speech to the Centre for Policy Studies
"The Blair Government has lowered the standing of politics and politicians in our country. Opportunism, an obsession with style over substance and a scorn for Parliamentary government have debased British politics.
A British "presidency" has been created in No. 10. Too much power has been concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. We have seen a wholesale and deeply regrettable move from Cabinet government to autocratic government. We have a Prime Minister who is more George III than Clement Atlee.
Power has moved from Ministers to unelected advisers. After the Prime Minister and the Chancellor the most powerful man in Government in my opinion is the No. 10 Chief of Staff, Mr Jonathan Powell. He is completely unknown to the public but he is always at the Prime Minister's side. Mr Powell exercises more power as an unelected adviser than any person in such a position since the notorious Sir Horace Wilson advised Neville Chamberlain. Jonathan Powell is a far nicer man than Horace Wilson but it is perhaps no coincidence that Mr Chamberlain's Government wasn't much of a success either.
Parliament has been sidelined. The Prime Minister rarely appears in the House of Commons. The opportunities to question him have been restricted. Select Committees chairmanships have been handed out as consolation prizes to sacked Ministers. The much-vaunted "modernisation" of the House of Commons has turned out to be an exercise in making it more difficult for the opposition parties to hold the Government to account. Parliament has failed to rise to this challenge to its authority.
A debilitating culture, which elevates presentation to a higher plane than the making of policy, has seeped into the public services. The independence and quality of our Civil Service has been seriously undermined.
The centralisation of power has been astonishing. The Prime Minister has established a Strategic Communications Unit, a Performance and Innovation Unit, a Research and Information Unit and a Social Exclusion Unit. The roles and responsibilities of these various central teams overlap and they change constantly. The standing of the big departments of Whitehall has been reduced and their Secretaries of State brought under the direction of the Number 10 Policy Unit.
Having made the most enormous fuss about the "quango state" when in Opposition, New Labour has presided over a proliferation of task forces, committees and quangos. Local government has been treated with contempt, its funding system manipulated and its committee system forcibly abolished.
The thread of principle that ought to run through everything the Government does is lacking. Policy is more likely to be influenced by the results of a focus group or a newspaper editorial than by disinterested consideration of the evidence. Ministers complain that the first they know of a new Government policy is often when they read about it in the newspapers.
These are not just the concerns of political anoraks. They are of critical importance to every citizen. How we are governed tells us not only the kind of country we are but helps to determine the direction in which we will go. It is a truism that good government is effective government.
But something else has happened over the last eight years. Public confidence in politicians and our political system has fallen dramatically. It is striking that although Gallup has been conducting opinion polls since 1937, it was not until 1998 that they felt compelled to ask the public if they thought the Government had been honest and trustworthy.
The fall in the general election turnout to just 59.3 per cent in 2001 suggested that the British people had lost confidence in those who governed or who aspire to govern this country. The turnout in 2001 was the lowest since 1918 and the two per cent rise this year is hardly encouraging. This lack of interest in voting is a profoundly disturbing phenomenon and one politicians cannot ignore.
I believe that this toxic mixture of misgovernment under Prime Minister Blair and the corresponding collapse in public trust constitutes a major crisis for the British political system. The checks and balances that should have restrained Mr Blair's dictatorial instincts have failed to work. Worse, the situation is likely to deteriorate if Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister. There is no more obsessive control freak in this Government than the Chancellor.
If the Conservative Party is to govern Britain again, then it has to convince the British people that it has the will and the policies to address this crisis of confidence. It is time we had a debate in Britain not just about what has gone wrong with politics under New Labour but how we are going to put it right.
The Conduct of Government
We can't say we were not warned. Before the 1997 general election Tony Blair said that his party "will run the centre and govern from the centre". As if that was not clear enough, one of his key advisers warned top officials that Blair's style of Government might well involve "a change from a feudal system of barons to a more Napoleonic system". It is remarkable if you pause to think about it that one of Blair's own advisers should have compared his boss to the most famous failed megalomaniac of history.
Mr Blair has certainly kept his promise. The traditional form of Cabinet government in this country has been dispensed with. Its role has been marginalised by taking decisions in small groups of Ministers outside the formal structure of the Cabinet and its committees. Cabinet meetings are also far shorter than in the past and they have no formal agenda. The Cabinet is less a team of senior colleagues led by a Prime Minister who is first among equals than an exercise in political conversation. It is certainly not the key decision-making body in this administration.
We can see that if we look at two important decisions made by the Blair Government.
I suppose we should not be surprised that in a Labour Government major questions of nuclear weapons policy were made by an ad-hoc group of senior Ministers. But the decisions taken by that group, to reduce Britain's nuclear weapons stockpile and to fundamentally change the way the Trident deterrent operates, were of great important to our defence and foreign policy. At the very least one might have expected them to be considered by the Defence & Overseas Policy Committee of the Cabinet. But apparently they were not.
This government by clique still continues. It was alarmingly evident in the run up to war with Iraq in 2003. In any previous Government the Cabinet would have taken the decision to go to war. It is, after all, about the most important decision any government could make. Indeed, politically astute Prime Ministers ensure that the full Cabinet takes all such controversial decisions because it gives legitimacy to them if they are subsequently criticised.
But Mr Blair did not allow the Cabinet to make the key decisions on Iraq policy any more than they were allowed to decide other questions. The Butler Report stated that the Cabinet discussed the issue of Iraq 24 times in year before the war. But, as we now know from Clare Short's memoirs, these were not decision-making sessions; they were discussions following oral briefings to the Cabinet by senior Ministers. As Lord Butler's report said, the absence of proper Cabinet papers tabled for discussion prevented Ministers not directly involved from participating properly in the discussions.
Mr Blair's approach to approach to decision-making in the run-up to the Iraq war was unconstitutional. The authority of the Prime Minister derives from his position as chairman of the Cabinet as much as from his leadership of his party. The British Prime Minister is not an executive president. He has no right to direct the affairs of government in the way Mr Blair has done. The decisions to deploy British forces to the Gulf and to go to war with Iraq should have been taken by the whole Cabinet after its members had all received full advice from officials, including the service chiefs.
As the distinguished former permanent secretary Sir Michael Quinlan has put it, when commenting on the Blair administration, the strong focus on delivery in government can
"slide into a sense that outcome is the only true reality and that
process is flummery".
Process is more than flummery; it has to ensure that everyone who ought to be involved has been involved in an organised way. Handling decisions in this way seeks to ensure that that the final decision is the best that can be made. It is a necessary requirement in a democratic society.
There is a certain discipline involved in sitting on a hard chair - not a sofa - your senior colleagues gathered around you, with a substantial paper on an important issue to discuss. Such an approach reflects the fact that the governance of this country is a serious matter. The Prime Minister is supposed to be leading the nation, not managing a student rock band.
Alongside the reduction in the status of the Cabinet we have seen the remarkable rise of the political adviser. I am not sure we should call them "advisers" anymore. Quietly this summer the Prime Minister has legitimised the extension of their power since 1997. By the device of using an obscure amendment to the rules of the Civil Service, Mr Blair removed the notion that special advisers are there to advise Ministers and instead described their role as "assisting" Ministers. Metaphors about coaches and horses come to mind. What on earth is the legal definition of "assisting a Minister"? No doubt it means using the Minister's name and authority to exercise power on their account.
The influence of these advisers has increased partly because they have doubled in number since 1997; in fact in No. 10, the number has trebled. Furthermore, a select group of them have the power to direct civil servants. This power, so famously exercised by Alastair Campbell when he was at No. 10, should never have been granted. The sequence of events at No. 10 that led up to the tragic death of David Kelly, so dramatically exposed by Lord Hutton's inquiry, demonstrated beyond peradventure that the relative power of advisers had become too great for the system to cope with. It was wholly wrong of Mr Blair to blur the distinction between political advisers and civil servants; they each have distinctive but necessarily separate roles.
The excessive influence of political advisers was again vividly illustrated by the revelation that Baroness Morgan, the then Director of Government Relations at No. 10 - whatever that means - twice met the Attorney General to discuss the Attorney's legal advice on a possible war with Iraq. My party would have been torn to shreds by the media and MPs if we had involved special advisers in the exceptionally sensitive area of law officers' advice. What did Baroness Morgan think she was doing having such meetings? In my opinion it was wholly improper for a special adviser to meet with the Attorney General whilst he was considering what advice to offer.
Of course we have to recognise that the world of politics has changed out of all recognition from when Sir Ivor Jenning's wrote forty years ago that the Prime Minister,
"is in fact much like a film star though, not being employed by a
profit-making company, he has no publicity manager to see that
he hits the headlines".
But we have now gone too far in the other direction. It is not just the proliferation of press officers and communication strategy advisers in No. 10 that is the problem, it is the way they drive rather than respond to events. The focus on presentation now effectively makes many of the decisions for Ministers.
Too often this Government's policies have been a triumph of marketing over substance. This is partly why they have failed. The infamous example of the Prime Minister suggesting that criminals might be taken to a cashpoint and made to pay on the spot, was unfortunately all too typical of his administration's tendency for government by gimmick.
Occasionally in government, your public relations advisers come to you and say, "Minister, you cannot get away with this policy, the public won't have it". A good Minister looks them in the eye and reminds them that it is their job to help you persuade the public that it is the right policy. Ministers have to have the courage to do what is right. Ivor Jenning's thoughts on this point are still relevant today:
"Every Government has to take decisions which it knows to be
unpopular, because it believes other decisions would prove to be
even more unpopular".
The Blair Government has an extraordinary capacity for running away from problems. It is one of the gut reactions of New Labour that faced with a problem they will push it off to a committee, a taskforce or one of the one-man consultancy services they like to employ.
Ministers do not exist just to go on the telly. They are there to make difficult decisions. By all means get the best advice you can but do not run away from your responsibilities.
The relentless drive towards greater and greater centralisation has been one of the marked features of the Blair Government. Much of this centralising has been time wasting and too often silly. It is absurd that the Department for Education & Skills requires every state school in England to send a copy of its annual budget to its head office. Local education authorities are required to check school budgets already; what use could the Department for Education have with 24,000 school budgets? You may think that a trivial example but I doubt if the cost of employing staff to read all those budgets is trivial.
This debilitating tendency to believe that power should be centralised was evident from the first days of the Blair Government. When the Ministerial Code was published in 1997 it contained what Peter Riddell, a commentator not given to hyperbole, described as "the biggest centralisation of power seen in Whitehall in peacetime". Mr Riddell's astonishment was the result of reading the new instructions to Ministers requiring them to clear "all major interviews and media appearances, both print and broadcast" with the No. 10 Press Office. Ministers were also required to keep a record of contacts with the media. As the historian Amy Baker has remarked of this passage in the Code,
"Although policy presentation has been increasingly important for
post-war administrations, no Prime Minister before Tony Blair has
gone as far towards formalising central control and co-ordination".
I believe that the way the Blair Government has been conducted has been wrong in itself and has done profound damage to the integrity and credibility of our political system. In so far as it has led to bad decisions - and it has - it has damaged our country as well.
The Parliamentary Side-show
The Blair Government has not only been exceptional in the way in which it is directed from the centre but also in the way it has treated Parliament.
I referred earlier to the rarity of the Prime Minister's appearances in the House of Commons. As Peter Riddell has pointed out, Mr Blair has the poorest voting record of any peacetime Prime Minister since Winston Churchill in the early 1950s, who was kept away by ill-health. This infrequent attendance combines with a disdain for the concept of Parliamentary accountability.
I am not one of those who harks back to some golden Parliamentary age when Ministers daily trembled before the tribunes of the people. Our Parliamentary history is more complicated than that. Governments with large majorities do tend to be less sensitive to Parliamentary opinion simply because they can be. Our party system encourages loyalty to the party line and militates against individual action by MPs.
I respect the nostalgia of Anthony Howard for the days when Parliamentary debates regularly appeared on the front pages of national newspapers but I recognise that that era is largely over. The trend towards 24-hour rolling news was under way before the change of government in 1997 and this has helped to push Parliament to the side-lines. In the 1950s newspapers often had a Parliamentary clash as their front page lead because the BBC's self-imposed restrictions on reporting political events gave them a virtual monopoly on that kind of story. It was also more difficult for them to react to breaking stories around the world than it is now because of the limitations of technology.
Yet, even with those caveats, I would argue that the Blair Government has been unusually contemptuous of Parliament. It has deliberately sought to reduce the influence of Parliament in our national life. It has tried to emasculate the Select Committees by removing uncooperative chairmen and packing them with quiescent Members. Its system for the timetabling of public Bills has dramatically reduced the ability of the Opposition to scrutinise often large and complex legislation. Major announcements are often leaked to the media in advance. A Minister's statement on the floor of the House is an afterthought rather than his or her primary opportunity to explain policy.
This latter habit caught the attention of Betty Boothroyd when she was Speaker and she was forthright in her condemnation of it. The practice of leak first and tell Parliament later began in July 1997 with reports on the 'Today' programme that the Government would introduce university tuition fees. The Speaker roundly condemned this and other similar leaks because, as she rightly said, if Parliament is to fulfil its function properly, "it must be the first to learn of important developments of government policy".
Despite this ticking off, the leaks continued at an astonishing rate; indeed at one stage there was a torrent of policy leaks from the Government machine. My colleague Ann Widdecombe identified seven policy announcements concerning the health service alone that had all been leaked in advance to the press in 1999. Yet the leaks and pre-briefings to the media continue.
The current Speaker, Michael Martin, feels so strongly about this that he mentioned the issue when he was re-elected as Speaker in May. Mr Martin said that it was "right and fitting" that a Minister who had something new to say, should do so in the form of a statement in Parliament. He quoted the late Lord Callaghan as saying,
"It is not just the case that the majority rules; the voices of
the minorities must be gathered, and listened to, in any true
Parliament's effectiveness can be constrained by an overweening executive in a number of ways. One of the most powerful is simple; keep MPs and peers occupied with a huge volume of legislation. The current government has embraced this strategy with enthusiasm. This approach culminated in the absurdity of the Government announcing 37 Bills in the Queen's Speech last November when we all knew that there was no hope of them becoming law before an expected May general election.
It goes almost without saying that many of these Bills have been ill thought out and badly drafted. The Prevention of Terrorism Bill earlier this year was a particularly breathtaking example of Ministers making a Horlicks of legislation. Even I felt slightly sorry for Charles Clarke when he had to explain to a bewildered House of Commons that he was going to make fundamental changes to a Bill they were actually debating but he could not give them the amendments he proposed to make.
If we needed any further evidence of Mr Blair's indifference to Parliament it came with the proposals for reform of the House of Lords. He did not want a second chamber that would have the credibility to challenge anything his government did. For him that meant a wholly appointed House, consisting in part of former Labour MPs despatched in ermine to the Upper House in order to make way for New Labour apparatchiks in need of a safe Commons' seat.
The Blair Government's treatment of Parliament has been disgraceful. I disagree with those who argue that this administration has merely speeded up an already evident trend. Nor can the problem be dismissed with reference to Labour's large majorities in the last two parliaments. The relationship between Parliament and the Executive has changed because that is what Ministers wanted to happen.
Trust and the People
The Prime Minister opened the new edition of the Ministerial Code after he was elected in 1997 with these words: "I should like to reaffirm my strong personal commitment to the bond of trust between the British people and their Government", he declared. "We are all here to serve", he went on, "and we must all serve honestly and in the interests of those who gave us our positions of trust". A sentiment no reasonable politician could disagree with but it was as empty as it was portentous.
Trust in Government has fallen - and with it trust in the entire political class - as result not merely of the style and conduct of this administration. What Mr Blair did before 1997, ruthlessly assisted by Alastair Campbell, was to destroy the reputation for probity that the Conservative Party had so long enjoyed. I do not doubt that we contributed to the problem ourselves but the savagery with which John Major's Government was attacked was without parallel since the eighteenth century.
Accompanying this vicious attack on our party was a sanctimonious attitude that claimed that New Labour was morally superior to the Conservative Party. It was a remarkable feature of the 1990s that it took so long for the media to expose this for the hypocritical twaddle it always was. Their conduct in Government has been the opposite of what they promised. The effect of their ramping up expectations of a fresher, more wholesome style of governance and then providing the reverse has been to cause an even greater fall in trust.
There is a litany of New Labour embarrassments and mishaps which I shall not bore you with by setting them out in detail. But the number of such incidents in a relatively short space of time is notable in itself. There was Peter Mandelson's double resignation; the extraordinary goings on at the Department of Transport under Stephen Byers; the resignation of Beverley Hughes for misleading Parliament; and the death of David Kelly. No doubt I have left some out but you see my point. We did not get the honest and open government we had been promised.
Trust in government is a not an easy concept to promote. It rises and falls over time, depending on the pattern of events and the relative prosperity of the country. But it is essential that it exists. There are times when the Government needs to say things to the people that the people should take notice of. It might be about their personal security. It might concern a threat to their health or that of their family. It might be necessary to discourage some social evil such as drink-driving. Government cannot successfully get across these kinds of messages if the public do not have trust in them.
The present Government has spent simply astounding amounts of taxpayers' money on advertising. The Government's advertising bill has rocketed from under £40 million in 1997 to £138 million. I always regarded the ITV franchise when I was in government as an opportunity for the Treasury to make a little money; that situation seems to have been reversed. It is not just money that is going to waste here; if Ministers are not believed there is not much point in them advertising. The rapid expansion of the advertising budget reflects the desire of Ministers to use taxpayers' own money to pay for propaganda to convince those same taxpayers' that the Government has been doing wonderful things for them. It is both clever and cynical at the same time.
An Agenda for Change
The failings of the Blair Government are clear. We Conservatives need to set out an agenda for change in the way Britain is governed. It needs to be an agenda that recognises the contemporary demands on Ministers and Parliament.
What should we do?
We must sweep away the trappings of presidential government. The Prime Minister's department that Mr Blair has created in Downing Street must be dismantled. The Cabinet Office and not the Prime Minister's office should provide the co-ordinating machinery for government.
The status of the senior civil service should be restored. That means giving the Cabinet Secretary back his role as the Prime Minister's most senior adviser. The proliferation of people with permanent secretary rank inside No. 10 should be reduced as it has had the effect of lowering the standing of departmental permanent secretaries.
There is a case in my view for separating the post of Secretary to the Cabinet from that of Head of the Home Civil Service. If such a separation were made, it would enable the Head of the Home Civil Service to focus on questions of policy delivery and management while the Cabinet Secretary could concentrate on the more immediate issues that concerned senior Ministers.
Special advisers should no longer be able to direct civil servants. We need the best quality impartial advice from civil servants but special advisers have their role too. Used wisely, the political adviser can strengthen the impartiality of the civil service by taking from officials' responsibilities that might otherwise compromise their neutrality.
I welcome Gus O'Donnell's statement of intent as the new Cabinet Secretary that he will ensure a return to a more traditional style of Government in No. 10. The scandal of numerous meetings being held without a minute being taken - I could never make a 'phone call never mind hold a meeting without a note being taken - will apparently be brought to an end.
It should not have taken the death of a distinguished government scientist or the outbreak of an unnecessary war to ensure a return to the norms of democratic government.
The case for a Civil Service Act, to ensure proper demarcation between permanent officials and political advisers, as well as to protect the public from the creeping politicisation of the civil service, is now unanswerable. The core values of the civil service need to be entrenched in legislation and the number of special advisers restricted. Civil servants need to know that there is a line that the politicians cannot go beyond, a line their own senior managers will defend, come what may.
There is a wide consensus that we now need a Civil Service Act. Indeed, Ministers always say how much they agree with the idea. Unfortunately there never seems to be anytime to fit it in to the Parliamentary timetable. Eventually we will get - I hope from the next Conservative government - a Civil Service Act.
What the Leader of the Opposition can do is to set the tone for the kind of government they want to provide. I believe that we should see a return to a more collegiate style of leadership. We should operate with openness, publish the list of committees of the Shadow Cabinet and in our policy-making consult widely. We must be a listening party and not a lecturing party.
This is an important self-denying ordinance: As Prime Minister, I would make myself more receptive to the advice of an independent civil service and more accountable to Parliament. There are not many people who would put such constraints on their own power on taking office but I think it is important for the future health of British democracy.
Being more accountable than Mr Blair has been would probably mean more frequent statements but as it important, it would mean giving more time to Parliamentary business. The Prime Minister of this country should be aware of how MPs are thinking not just from reports from the Whips but from personal contact. I believe that Prime Ministers need to make a special effort to keep in touch with Parliamentary opinion in an age when the pressure of their job tends to keep them in No. 10.
Part of Mr Blair's problem has been the absence of a proper Deputy Prime Minister to support him. An experienced colleague with credibility in the party can liberate the Prime Minister of a sizeable burden. Willie Whitelaw did so for Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine did so for John Major. It is a crucial role I would want to revive.
Conservatives believe in institutions; we seek to strengthen them by reform. That means we want to reform Parliament and not side-line it. We should put Parliament at the centre of our national political life. As I have suggested, that involves Ministers taking it more seriously but there is more to it than that.
I believe passionately that Parliament should be the meeting house of the nation. It should be the place where the problems of the nation are debated and resolved. That means greater flexibility in the timetable to respond to events. It should not take Parliament a week or more to find time for an urgent debate.
The party whips should no longer handle Select Committee appointments. The chairmanships of the Select Committees, which have effectively been in the gift of the Prime Minister since they were created in the 1980s, should be awarded on merit by the House of Commons.
Parliament needs to be made more effective in dealing with legislation. We need to reduce the number of statutory instruments and other forms of delegated legislation. It comes as no surprise that the present Government has consistently resisted the demands of the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons to improve the way this legislation is handled. This has to be resolved because too many powers are being granted to Ministers to make this kind of legislation which then slips through Parliament with little or no scrutiny.
Every government starts out promising to reduce the volume of public Bills; almost all seem to end up doing the opposite. How do we ensure that the next Conservative government is genuinely different? First, Parliament must have greater control over its own timetable. Secondly, we should revive the practice of having longer Second Reading debates for major Government Bills. We should also have substantive debates on major treaties. Thirdly, the Committee stages of more Bills should be taken on the floor of the House so that a wider range of Members can participate in the detailed scrutiny that major legislation ought to have. Finally, pre-legislative scrutiny ought to be the norm and not the exception.
Reform of the House of Lords is a subject large enough for several speeches. All I shall say today it that I do not believe that the present situation can continue. Whatever reform is decided upon, there will have to be compromise. There is no agreement on a wholly elected Upper House nor on a wholly appointed one. I recognise the strong feelings on both sides of the argument but it undermines the credibility of our political system that this issue has remained unresolved for so long. Mr Blair's ambition is clear: he wishes to reduce the powers of the House of Lords and pack it with his cronies. Getting rid of the hereditary peers is the first part of that agenda. I do think we have to look at the composition of the Upper House but I do not believe we should reduce its powers.
I have not directly addressed the question of the restoration of public trust in politicians in my agenda for change. I have taken that approach because I do not believe that there is some simple route to rebuilding a relationship that has become fractured over time. It is laughable to suggest, as one Cabinet Minister recently did, that the solution to the alarming collapse in faith in British politics is to make voting compulsory.
I believe that public confidence in the political system and in politicians will only recover when they feel that attitudes have changed at the top. That is why I have suggested a different approach as Leader of the Opposition. It is why I believe the Conservative Party needs to be more open and accessible, including filling many appointments in our party by open competition. It requires too, a far greater determination - Theresa May is right about this - to ensure that the public representatives of the Conservative Party better reflect the society in which they live.
One of the key reasons why I am running for the leadership of my party is because I believe that it is critical that we restore the health of our democracy. Almost half the electorate refuse to vote, not because they are unable to do so but because they hold politics in contempt. People have lost their respect for politicians and they do not feel that Britain well governed. People feel voting is pointless.
We must raise the level of public debate in Britain. We must seek to avoid excessive use of slogans and mere abuse. We must set out a vision for the public as to how Britain can be better governed not just in terms of policies but in terms of a proper trustworthy system of accountable governance. There could be no more important task for anyone who aspires to take a leading role in British politics over the next few years."