What is the point of having businessmen in a government?
Life has become very difficult for any minister, let alone one who has spent time in the real world
Established as one of the most influential political commentators in the country, Steve Richards became The Independent’s chief political commentator in 2000 having been political editor of the New Statesman. He presents GMTV's flagship current affairs show The Sunday Programme and Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.
Thursday 18 February 1999
Science Minister: In that case I will leave the room right away.
Civil Servant: Excellent. Later we shall be discussing the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement .
Science Minister: Well, I know absolutely nothing about that at all.
Civil Servant: In that case, why don't you rejoin the meeting at that point?
SOME SORT of Yes Minister exchange along those lines must have taken place when Lord Sainsbury stood aside from ministerial discussions on genetically modified food, an area in which he had considerable expertise.
Mind you, yesterday's Independent reported that Sainsbury did indeed attend other meetings in which the issue of genetically modified food was discussed. This revelation provoked a genuine quote from a departmental official which could have been part of the same sketch. The official stated that: "There is a very clear difference between actually making decisions and discussing policy matters, and having a general discussion." At least it is reassuring to know that an awful lot of discussions are going on, even if the relevant minister cannot attend the ones in which any decisions are made.
Virtually every crisis that this Government has faced has related, in some way or another, to its ministerial recruits from business. Lord Simon was hounded with some success by John Redwood for several months immediately after the election. Geoffrey Robinson has resigned. Peter Mandelson resigned because of his loan from Robinson. Now it is the turn of Lord Sainsbury.
None of the crises has related in any way to their performances as ministers. Indeed, the reverse is the case. The reason why Gordon Brown was keen to hang on to Robinson was not out of a sentimental attachment, but because he brought the expertise of the private sector to the heart of government. The smooth implementation of the windfall tax on the privatised utilities is one example where Robinson played a pivotal role. John Prescott, too, turned to Robinson as he navigated his way around the minefield of Private Finance Initiatives. Simon is highly regarded in the DTI, while Sainsbury's expertise in his field is not in doubt.
The appointment of business outsiders as ministers was Blair's most daring move in the aftermath of the election. I do not believe he had any intention of inviting Liberal Democrats into the Government unless there had been a hung parliament. But he used his landslide-enhanced authority to bring in business leaders, a bolder move than it seemed at the time. After all, Lord Simon had not been a member of the Labour Party until he became a minister.
The sight of business moving to the centre of a Labour government no doubt appealed to the Blairites' often counter-productive love of political symbolism, but it also served a practical purpose. This was a government full of ministers with no experience of running anything after 18 years of opposition. How reassuring, therefore, to have business leaders in key government departments.
The experiment has failed, not because of the ministers concerned but because of the prevailing political culture in Britain which demands that politicians are closer to saints than flawed human beings. This should be galling not just to Blair but to the rest of us as well. For Whitehall is not a small, self-contained soap opera. Talented ministers produce better policies from which we can all benefit. The current system values an exaggerated integrity above talent.
The Government is a victim of this culture, but it is largely to blame for it as well. In opposition it taunted the Tories with allegations of sleaze. These hit home to such an extent that Blair's administration has to be, in his own words, "purer than pure". Add to this the new rules of ministerial conduct, which lay down that even a perception of wrong- doing is grounds for dismissal, and life becomes very difficult for any minister, let alone one who has spent time in the real world away from Westminster.
In particular, any business leader is bound to have a problem with the notion that there should be no "conflict of interest". For if they have been brought in to the Government because of their backgrounds it is almost inevitable that , at the very least, a perceived conflict of interest may arise.
Nor is the potential conflict of interest resolved, as Lord Sainsbury is discovering, because ministers put financial interests into a "blind trust" while they hold public office. For the awkward questions in today's saintly climate can still be asked. Did the minister benefit financially in the past? Will he do so in the future, when he ceases to be a minister?
The only way these questions can be neutered is to restrict the ministerial involvement of business leaders to areas that relate in no way to their past experience. This produces the silly situation of a science minister being unable to discuss a science-related topic.
There are two ways of resolving this dilemma. There is the grown-up option, which would greatly enhance the quality of our politics and therefore has no chance of being taken up. This would involve ministers being given some benefit of the doubt because they bring to government a whiff of the outside world. If this is not followed through we risk being ruled by narrow-minded professional politicians who have been plotting their political careers since age 12. Harold Lever, for example, the multimillionaire businessman in the Wilson/ Callaghan government, was seen as an asset in the Seventies. He would not have survived in the current climate.
Unfortunately the "grown-up" option is not available to the Government. The standards it has set itself are so unreasonably high that they exclude professional outsiders. At the moment I doubt whether any more business leaders would want to become ministers anyway. Meanwhile, Blair's glowing admiration of business leaders is being put to the political test. His admiration is undimmed, but he must be more aware now of the political dangers of such close association. I am not surprised he is fighting hard to save Sainsbury.
From now on, the best way to involve business in government will be to bring various experts into particular policy areas, but to keep them firmly on the outside. Martin Taylor remained at Barclays Bank while he helped Gordon Brown review the nightmarishly complex tax and benefits system. Ironically, Lord Sainsbury could have been consulted from the outside as an expert on genetically modified food. But as a fully fledged minister of the crown? Forget it. Labour has been hoist by its own purer than pure petard.
The author is political editor of the `New Statesman'
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