Andreas Whittam Smith: Sofas out, proper debate in

A Cabinet comprising members of two parties so recently opposed cannot simply nod things through, as has been the case. There will have to be discussion
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The Independent Online

Praise be. The new coalition government could turn out to be more effective than its recent predecessors. If this were its achievement, it would reverse 20 years of increasingly dysfunctional administration. There has been no lack of ambitious objectives in the recent past. In practice, however, delivery has fallen far short of aspirations. In this light, the most significant element in the Conservative pact with the Liberal Democrats is the establishment of five-year fixed-term parliaments. For this means that the new government will not feel obliged to engage in daily electioneering from its first day in office as its predecessors have done since the early 1990s.

Daily electioneering has at least two vices so far as good government is concerned. It leads straight to a presidential style because strictly controlling the message directed at an unsuspecting electorate is a major preoccupation. It also requires feverish public relations activity by No 10, forever having to create a daily flow of announcements that paint the government in flattering colours. Yesterday's photographs of Gordon Brown's last hours in Downing Street illustrated his obsession with the 24/7 news cycle, for in every room one saw giant television screens flashing the latest headlines. Yet what good government requires above all is to "make haste slowly", or to use the old Latin phrase, festina lente. A five-years fixed term must put an end to daily electioneering for at least the first three years. Governments shouldn't react to every passing news item; they should make the news when they are ready.

Coalition government also seems likely to restore the Cabinet to a pre-eminent position. A Cabinet comprising members of two parties so recently opposed cannot simply nod things through, as has been the case in recent years. There will have to be proper debate. Somebody should play devil's advocate. It is out of such interchange that good decisions emerge. Famously Tony Blair didn't like meetings of any kind and certainly did not wish Cabinet to challenge what he had decided to do in conference with his advisers, gathered as they were round the sofa on which he lolled.

It is harder to see at this early stage whether the new ministers will work well with their civil servants. For 40 years incoming governments have been suspicious of them and have reduced the effectiveness of the civil service without finding anything to replace it. Goodness knows, they have tried everything – special advisers who have turned out to be over-promoted party hacks, consultants who have been paid excessive fees by naïve ministers, and the institution of a regime of targets that gives false assurances of progress. While all the time, civil servants would have done what ministers wanted had they asked.

The coalition agreement is encouraging in this respect. I have put the significant passage in italics. It states "modest cuts of £6bn to non-front line services can be made within the financial year 2010-11, subject to advice from the Treasury and the Bank of England on their feasibility and advisability". This is exactly what civil servants and Bank officials are for. It suggests a readiness to listen. At the same time, senior civil servants staffed the talks between the negotiating teams trying to reach a coalition agreement. This must have raised their standing – assuming that they did a good job.

If the presence of two political parties in a single government means that Cabinet cannot approve decisions without proper debate, the same must go for Parliament itself. It can be no accident that the standing of the former has declined in parallel with a neglect of the latter, for both institutions – unless tightly controlled – can prevent the prime minister of the day doing exactly what he or she wishes to do.

What will matter most in this respect is the attitude of the new government's backbenchers. Will they each be so anxious for promotion to ministerial ranks that they behave in a docile fashion at all times? Fortunately this may be doubted for both parties have bands of irreconcilables who heartily dislike what their leaders have done. If this means that they look with suspicion on every measure that is put before them, so much the better.

In any case the new government has committed itself to enhancing the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account. It is to bring forward "the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full – starting with the proposed committee for management of programmed business and including government business within its scope by the third year of the Parliament". This opaque sentence means that the Government will give up its near total control of the timetabling of business. This is significant for the best way of silencing awkward backbenchers has been to reduce the amount of time made available for debate. The committees of the two Houses of Parliament will also be strengthened; they are reservoirs of talent that is often wasted.

Also relevant is the proposal to bring forward a "freedom or Great Repeal" Bill. This is mainly designed to restore a series of civil liberties that have been removed or curtailed by recent governments on the purported grounds of national security. As a matter of fact, however, the statute book is stuffed with laws that were passed only to create a good image. At least the message of the Great Repeal Bill would be clear: legislation must have a serious objective and not merely be a tool of party propaganda.

The omens for good government thus appear promising. At least on the whole, they do. I noticed with disappointment that the new Home Secretary, Theresa May, took television cameras with her yesterday when she visited a police station. There is no need now. The election campaign is over. As this shows, it is, fortunately, rather easy to monitor these things. It will quickly become obvious if the new government has relapsed into gesture politics.

Even small incidents can say a lot. For instance, any changes to the staffing of the communications sections of 10 Downing Street and government departments would be a clue. The length and frequency of Cabinet meetings is another tiny but valuable indicator. The daily reports of Hansard accurately record how much consideration is given to contentious clauses in government bills. All the time, in one way and another, I shall be looking for evidence that government business has been thoroughly considered. It does finally all come back to festina lente.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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