Andy McSmith's Diary: Lunch with Hague, a lesson in ‘civil servantese’

Hague’s speech at the Press Gallery lunch was like a Conservative political broadcast - he may be leaving Parliament, but he was strictly on message

Click to follow

William Hague entertained the hacks during his valedictory speech at a Press Gallery lunch yesterday with examples of what he called “civil servantese”. 

“I fought a long campaign to stop the Foreign Office from putting the word ‘ongoing’ in any document, or calling anything a strategy that was not a strategy,” he said. “Every time I’ve seen officials say ‘we have drawn up a strategic plan’ it means this is a piece of work that is just a bit longer than normal.” Other examples he gave were:

“We are scaling up our response” means “we never expected this to happen”.

“There has been some push back in government” means “Number 10 hate it”.

“Our work is ongoing to find a solution” means “we are nowhere near finishing this work”.

“There is a spread of opinion about your proposals, minister” means “none of us thinks it is a good idea”.

“We have been around the houses with this” means “no one else thinks it is a good idea”.

“We are scrubbing through the options, minister” means “by the time your policy comes back, you won’t recognise it”.

That aside, Hague’s speech was like a Conservative political broadcast. He may be leaving Parliament, but he was strictly, disappointingly, on message.

Redwood’s tarnished legacy 

Hague’s first Cabinet job was as Secretary of State for Wales, where he succeeded John Redwood in the 1990s. Redwood was on that wing of the Conservative Party which believed that they should promote marriage and morality. After visiting a Welsh council estate full of broken families, he suggested that single mothers should not be paid benefits until after the father had been chased up for a contribution to the children’s upkeep.

What he apparently did not take into account is how many of these mothers were in flight from violent men, and the last thing they needed was their former partners back in their lives. Jacqui Crabb, living in Haverfordwest with her three sons, was an example. Her son Stephen, who was 20 when Redwood made that speech, remembered standing in his way as his father threatened his mother with a knife.

He is now a Tory MP and Secretary of State for Wales. “Some of the most impressive people I see in my constituency and all around Wales are single mums doing their very best,” he has told The House magazine, the MPs’ in-house journal. “That’s another legacy that the Conservatives were tarnished with, one of my predecessors as Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, getting them into a lot of hot water by talking about single mums. We’ve had to work hard to ditch that caricature.”

Avoiding the issue

We have heard condemnation of “aggressive tax avoidance” from politicians of all sides, including David Cameron who, when asked about Gary Barlow’s tax arrangements, replied: “I am opposed to all aggressive tax avoidance.” This prompts obvious questions, such as what about non-aggressive tax avoidance? How much tax can you avoid before your avoidance goes from “vanilla”, to borrow Lord Fink’s phrase, to “aggressive”?

Lord Ashcroft, who attracted some controversy in the past because of his “non-dom” status, asked the Treasury, via a Lords written question, for enlightenment. The answer he received is that there is no such thing as vanilla tax avoidance in HM Revenue and Customs’ book. There is tax avoidance, which is bad, and “tax planning”, which is fine. All we need to know now is when does “tax planning” become so elaborate that it morphs into “avoidance”.