Andreas Whittam Smith: Forget what sounds clever. Just run the country

Cameron said what people wanted to hear when he announced the abolition of quangos. Doing it is harder

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Government and politics are very different things. Government is running the offices of the state in the public interest, employing hundreds of thousands of people to do so. Politics has little to do with the public interest. It sometimes gives that impression, but the public interest isn't the driving logic of it. It is essentially a sophisticated marketing exercise designed to enable one political party rather than another to retain power or regain it by winning the next election. Unfortunately the people who are good at politics are often poor at governing. They tend to produce "omnishambles". Events this week have illustrated how political marketing really works.

The gap between promise (which is politics) and performance (which is government) was demonstrated by an analysis of the Government's success – or lack of it – in reducing the vast number of quangos. Quangos are advisory bodies – consumer watchdogs and similar organisations – funded by the state. Then the Public Administration Select Committee commented unfavourably on the capacity of ministers and officials to carry out long-term strategic thinking. Finally the Leveson Inquiry illustrated the paradox that political parties lobby media organisations as much as everybody else lobbies government.

In the devising, announcing and carrying out of policy, the first rule of political marketing is that the announcement is the key event. What happens afterwards is of much less concern. For the party in power, the problem is that the normal course of government business does not produce a continuous series of attractive announcements and achievements. So the announcement of consultation documents, task forces and working parties and even fresh legislation is used to convey a message of purposeful activity by government regardless of whether any of it is actually needed. This is political marketing. For the opposition, the problem is how to be heard.

David Cameron mastered this art. He made his announcement about culling the "quango state" while still in opposition. He said everything voters wanted to hear: "The growth of the quango state is one of the main reasons so many people feel that nothing ever changes, nothing will ever get done and that government's automatic response to any problem is to pass the buck and send people from pillar to post until they just give up in exasperated fury." That was the big moment. In the Conservative Party manifesto published 10 months later, the electorate was duly told, "any quangos that do not perform a technical function or a function that requires political impartiality, or act independently to establish facts, will be abolished".

In government, however, abolishing quangos suddenly appeared a lot harder than envisaged. In October 2010, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude announced that some 192 public bodies were to be scrapped while another 289 would be reformed. Some 648 of them were left standing. Some 18 months later when the Public Accounts Committee assessed progress, the Cabinet Office said that everything was on track. Except that a lot of accounting tricks had been used to convey this impression. This is also political marketing. Thus the savings were inflated by including items that had nothing to do with culling quangos. And the costs of the exercise, such as redundancy payments, turned out to be double what the Government had claimed. Never mind, for Mr Cameron's announcement in 2009 had done its work.

Now the point about political marketing as practised for the past 20 years is that it is inimical to the taking a strategic view of the country's best interests. Of its nature it is opportunistic, short-term, not long-term. In fact no politician has arrived at 10 Downing Street with a briefcase bulging with ideas, plans and fully worked out policies since Mrs Thatcher resigned. John Major had given no sustained thought to what he wanted to achieve as prime minister. Nigel Lawson, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, said he "never detected any political beliefs" in John Major. Likewise when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, people waited to discover his Big Idea. What they got were initiatives of such variety that they seemed to have been launched by scattergun. Mr Cameron isn't very different.

So the Public Administration Select Committee is being naïve when it laments that "policy decisions are made for short-term reasons, little reflecting the longer-term interests of the nation. This has led to mistakes... in such areas as the Strategic Defence and Security Review (carrier policy), energy (electricity generation and renewables) and climate change, child poverty targets (which may not be achieved), and economic policy (lower economic growth than forecast)." I am afraid it will always be thus. We shall have to put up with the mistakes.

The hardest part of political marketing is that it can only be carried out successfully if the media are on your side. So if it means toadying up to newspaper proprietors and their families, attending their tedious parties, riding their horses, receiving and responding to emails and text messages from self-important press barons, then so be it. The rules of political marketing demand nothing less. But as to trading favourable decisions by government in return for favourable coverage in the press, only the Leveson Inquiry can tell us in due course whether that criminal activity has been taking place. That's the trouble with obsessive marketing. It can go too far.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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