Cabinet on the picket-line

Britain's most militant and stubborn trade unionists will not be found chanting slogans on an obscure picket-line. They are serving in the Cabinet. Faced with any attempt to modernise their antiquated but lucrative working practices they resist w ith a zeal that Arthur Scargill must secretly admire.

David Hunt, the Cabinet's chief shop steward, was down at the Nolan Committee yesterday stoutly defending privileges that wheel tappers and shunters could only dream of. Of course ex-ministers should be free to take up the jobs of their choice, Mr Hunt declared. He is acutely aware of the collective interest that he and his fellow incumbents share. Which of them can confidently predict that they will still hold office in a year's time? Only yesterday, Allan Stewart lost his job as an industry minister in the Scottish Office. Thanks to Mr Hunt's comradely leadership, Mr Stewart is entitled to look for alternative employment among the companies that, until yesterday, he dealt with as a representative of the Government. He can, as it were, take his pick.

Many voters may have expected more than merely narrow-minded self-defensiveness from the Government when John Major set up the Nolan Committee last October. Why did the Prime Minister bother with an inquiry into sleaze that his ministers seem so intent on frustrating? Mr Hunt's testimony yesterday offered minimal concessions to those worried by the huge salaries earned by former ministers who have left the Government and now work for recently privatised industries.

Nor did he suggest an effective way of making quangos more accountable. It is not enough to advertise posts and offer explanations for particular appointments. Mr Hunt rejected calls for the independent scrutiny of appointments, a safeguard that would prevent possible abuse of political patronage by ministers.

Yet we should not be surprised by Mr Hunt's complacent behaviour. Politicians in Westminster seem to think that they can exempt themselves from the changes that have swept other professions in the past decade. Schools are ranked according to examination results; lawyers face the reform of legal aid; hospitals are being placed in death leagues. This week, the Audit Commission even questioned the organisation of the fire service.

Yet politicians remain surprisingly free from performance review. We should have leagues that reveal how MPs rate against each other in terms of holding surgeries, taking up cases, asking parliamentary questions (not for money), attendance at debates, committee work and voting in the House of Commons.

But the good old days when MPs and ministers were a law unto themselves are numbered. Politicians might not like it, but the Nolan Committee, not Parliament, is setting the agenda. It has worked more quickly than the Scott inquiry into the arms to Iraq scandal and caught the public mood of disillusionment with Westminster. If Lord Nolan recommends tight control of MPs' outside financial interests and independent regulation, the Government will find it impossible to ignore his proposals.

Like other workers, politicians will discover they cannot resist change to practices that look corrupt to voters who expect meritocracy, openness and value for money.