Tony Blair did not only mislead us about Saddam Hussein's weaponry. He was equally wrong about Gordon Brown's. Remember the Great Clunking Fist? At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, David Cameron behaved like an old-fashioned schoolmaster dealing with a slow and sullen pupil. "Brown, how many times do I have to tell you..." These days, the Tories' main worry about PMQs is that Mr Cameron will come across as cruel. Labour MPs, who were hoping to revel in the clunking, are now reduced to whining about public-school bullies.
Poor Mr Brown, and his life has now become even harder. Two of his principal advisers, Peter Mandelson and Shaun Woodward, have taken to hissing at each other like a pair of alley cats. What a subject for a West End farce. Is it "St Trinian's comes to Wuthering Heights"? Or should it be "Goneril and Regan fall out over Lear"? There is also Kingsley Amis's black comedy, "Ending Up": appropriate for Mr Brown's final decomposing months. It is a theme which could enthral a college of comedians. It is no way to run a government.
Our hapless Prime Minister will now have a couple of days' relief from the pantomime dames. He is off to Italy where Silvio Berlusconi is chairing a meeting of the G8. Once again, comedy cannot compete with reality; once again, Mr Brown ought to be careful. He is no doubt hoping that in view of the Italian PM's embarrassments, he can take the spotlight and claim to be ruling the world.
There is a problem. Signor Berlusconi does not do embarrassment. If he did, he would not have held the G8 in Aquila, recently afflicted by an earthquake. In Italy, when the earth moves, it may be something more serious than the guests growing frisky with the staff. The contrast will no doubt be drawn between the luxuriating summiteers and the homeless who are still living in tents. Beyond that, much of the media will be playing the event for laughs and gaffes. Mr Brown should take care not to be photographed with any female more exotic than Angela Merkel.
Italian politics is different. Tony Blair got on with Silvio Berlusconi, and got away with doing so. Mr Blair got away with everything. Mr Brown should remember that only one British Premier has ever earned political credit from his dealings with Italy: Gladstone. Although Gordon Brown would like to think that he resembles Gladstone, the similarity could be quantified in a figure the PM used on Wednesday: 0 per cent. Despite all the competition, that might have been the lowest moment of the Brown Premiership. If the ex-Clunking Fist were a boxer, the fight would have been stopped and his licence taken away. Some Labour MPs wish that there were a quango to do so: OffGord, perhaps. But it will still take dynamite to blow him out of No10.
Apropos of quangos, David Cameron is making a speech tonight in which he will outline the approach his government would take. Though many quangos do valuable work, the rapid growth in their powers, employees and expenditure has often added to the cost of government: rarely, to its efficiency. Since 1997, the quangos' budget has increased by 40 per cent in real terms. It has been estimated that if they were run with the same staffing levels as the rest of government, there would be a £6bn saving. It takes two to tango; it costs billions to quango.
Apart from a leaner spending regime, Mr Cameron will clarify the principles under which quangos should operate. He believes that while they have a valuable role in implementing government policy, they should not be allowed to make policy. That is the function of ministers, who are accountable to Parliament. There are some obvious examples. The Chancellor sets an inflation target; the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England makes sure that it is achieved. Ministers establish a regime for the safety of nuclear power plants. A quango of experts ensures that it is implemented. The Arts Council and the funding of higher education are other areas where quangos are indispensable.
Properly run, such bodies should ease the pressure on the public purse. They are a means of recruiting expert advice at less than market rates. Some remuneration may occur via the Honours' List: no harm in that. But David Cameron believes that too many quangos have acquired political powers. Some of them have turned themselves into pressure groups, hiring lobbyists and recruiting press officers at spin-doctor levels. Under the Tories, that would stop.
The Tories have been reviewing the entire machinery of government, and the indications are encouraging. They appear to be coming to some sound Conservative conclusions. Although it is never easy for an incoming government simply to abolish the past 12 years of its predecessors' efforts, there would be a case for the Tories trying to do so with the civil service.
Labour inherited an admirable administrative machine, envied throughout the world. Since the era of Gladstone, it has recruited on merit and served all governments impartially. Senior civil servants were always ready to speak truth unto power. Good ministers invariably came to see the need for able civil servants, so that policies could be hammered on the anvil until they were strong enough to stand up to the stresses of implementation. A minister once compared the process to trying to stuff newspaper through wire mesh. But in my experience, the ministers who bitched about civil servants in general were bad workmen complaining about their tools.
Any party taking office after 18 years will have a problem with officials. Politicians understand impartiality in the way that Don Giovanni understood eunuchs. So it was inevitable that the Blairites would assume that most civil servants were covert Tories.
Robin Butler, the then Head of the Civil Service, thought that he had the answer. Do not try to confront the new ministers' suspicions; that would only confirm them. Do not obstruct the new political advisers. Just wait for the passage of time. After a few months, the incoming ministers would realise what a marvellous instrument the civil service was, and the more bumptious special advisers would be marginalised.
That was what should have happened. But it never did. Instead, the civil service was marginalised. In many departments, officials were barely allowed to work on policy. They found themselves reduced to the role of associate spin doctors as the new politicised press offices virtually took control. That is why so many of this government's policies disintegrate on contact with reality. That is why Whitehall is so demoralised.
There is an irony. Back in 1997, a majority of the civil servants whom Labour so distrusted probably voted for Mr Blair, because they thought that John Major's government had outlived its usefulness. Next year, the same sort of officials will probably vote Conservative, not out of partisanship, but because they believe that the national interest requires a new government.
We will see whether David Cameron can live up to their expectations. But encouragement can be drawn from his recognition of the need to rebuild the civil service's morale and acknowledge its vital role. A good workman respects his tools, which do not include a clunking fist with metal fatigue.Reuse content