Andreas Whittam Smith: Cameron is as obsessed with winning headlines as Blair

What matters is not how much ministers are paid but how many there are
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The Independent Online

Rule number one in political marketing is "think in headlines". David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, gave a textbook example earlier this week when he said that a Tory Government would cut ministers' pay, reduce the number of MPs and remove some further Parliamentary perks. He didn't say anything meaningful about the more pressing subject of controlling public spending but he obtained the kind of coverage he was seeking. The Daily Mail called Mr. Cameron "the 10% Axeman".

Bill Clinton and his advisers first developed the techniques of modern political marketing in the late 1980s. Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and their political consultant, Philip Gould, saw the point and brought them to the attention of the Labour Party.

While he was still in opposition, Mr Blair gave his analysis: "Our news today is instant, hostile to subtlety or qualification. If you can't sum it up in a sentence, or even a phrase, forget it. Combine two ideas or sentiments together and mass communication will not repeat them, it will chose between them. To avoid misinterpretation, strip down a policy or opinion to one key clear line before the media does it for you. Think in headlines". Then when Labour came to power in 1997, the Government Information Service was taught the same rule. Alastair Campbell told Whitehall press officers a few months after the election: "Decide your headlines. Sell your story and if you disagree with what is being written, argue your case." Thus the whole Government was brought to think in this way.

But if Mr Cameron's headlines were good, his story was less impressive. He said that there are currently 169 government ministerial posts and three opposition party posts that receive additional taxpayer funded salaries, on top of the standard MP salary. These ministerial salaries range from £26,624 to £132,923.

He went on: "It's only right, at a time when the country has to share in financial pain, that they make their sacrifice. So we will cut all Ministerial salaries - that's the money they get on top of their MPs' salary - by an immediate five percent". And he added: "On top of that, we will freeze those salaries for the lifetime of the next Parliament."

Actually the figure to look at is not what ministers are paid but how many there are. Way back in 1900, the Government consisted of 60 ministers. By 1970, after two world wars, the development of the welfare state and greater involvement by government in every area of life, the number had risen to just above 100. What has subsequently driven the total to 170 is not the requirements of governing but the desire to control the House of Commons.

For ministers comprise the so-called payroll vote that always supports the government in divisions. And the larger the payroll vote, the less the ability of parliament to challenge the government.

Mr Cameron also said that a Conservative government would reduce the size of the House of Commons. "We've got far too many MPs in Westminster", he said. "More people sit in the House of Commons than in any other comparable elected chamber in the world. So we will require the Boundary Commission to set out detailed proposals to reduce the number of MPs by 10 per cent for the next general election. That will be a reduction from 650 to 585, and will save £15.5 million".

This sounds good. But what matters is the parliamentary workload. The numbers of pages of primary legislation that are laid before parliament each year best measures this. Since the early 1990s, the volume of legislation has increased by 45 per cent. Yet the number of hours that parliament sits each week has been substantially reduced. There are no longer any Friday sessions. Business begins earlier but finishes at 6pm or 7pm in midweek.

At the same time the length of the parliamentary session has recently been shortened. The 2008-2009 session was the briefest in a non-election year since 1979-80. The result has been a rise in the number of badly drafted and incomplete bills that, rushed through and lacking full scrutiny, become badly drafted and incomplete acts of parliament. Reducing the number of MPs would further weaken proper scrutiny of legislation.

Mr Cameron's headlines obscure more than they illuminate. So many questions are left unanswered. In government would he seek to maintain a top-heavy ministerial team in order tightly to control the House of Commons? Does he see any merit in sustained, line-by-line examination of government bills or does he wish to rush things through as his predecessors have done? Would Mr Cameron make a break or not with government by headline? Is he more of the same?

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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