How journalism works, part 94. Imagine you are the editor of a national newspaper and you have this week's Spectator interview with Lord Butler in front of you. You have a choice of two headlines to put on the story. "Embittered ex-mandarin complains about procedure" or "Blair savaged on spin, style and rivalries in the Cabinet". All right, it's a no-brainer. You run the second, but that does not make it true. And the editor of The Daily Telegraph ought to have hesitated over the use of "savaged", recalling as it does Denis Healey's jibe at Geoffrey Howe's expense, that he felt he had been "savaged by a dead sheep".
The mandarinate has been bleating in private about the Blair style of government for some time; what makes Lord Butler's interview news is that one of them has gone public. In this government "there is too much emphasis on selling, there is too much central control and there is too little of what I would describe as reasoned deliberation". Ministers listen only to their political advisers and Parliament does not have "sufficient control over the executive", so we have a "huge number of extremely bad Bills". The result is "bad government".
It all has the advantage of fitting well with the conventional wisdom. The politicisation of the civil service, the control freakery, the obsession with presentation - we have heard it all before, ever since 1997 and a lot of it before then.
We heard some of it earlier this year, too, when Lord Butler presented his report on the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The report disappointed the baying pack of anti-war journalists who came hoping to be told that Tony Blair was a liar. So they diverted their moral outrage on to Lord Butler's mild strictures about the "informality and circumscribed character of the Government's procedures". The papers were filled with denunciations of Blair's "sofa politics". It was only because the Prime Minister conducted official business from the office sofa and people did not take proper minutes that Blair, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell were able to take the country to war on a falsehood, apparently.
Attitudes to the Iraq war explain much of the senior civil service's antipathy to Blair's governing style. Many mandarins and ex-mandarins complain about Blair's way of doing business when they mean they do not agree with the decisions reached.
That does not, however, explain Lord Butler's criticism. Boris Johnson, in the Spectator interview, asked him about the Iraq war. "I'm not going to say what my view was," said the former cabinet secretary. "But in my view the best argument for it was not what was believed to be there" - the weapons of mass destruction - "but the argument that was made on 18 March 2003." In other words, in Blair's speech to the House of Commons before the vote for military action. In fact there were three arguments in that speech - that Saddam had failed to comply with the "final" UN resolution, that we could not take the risk that he might spread biological and chemical weapons and that it was in any case right to liberate the Iraqi people from tyranny if we could. Presumably, Lord Butler meant the last, which suggests that he was broadly in favour.
He can be acquitted, therefore, of the charge of pursuing opposition to the war by other means. But that does not mean he is innocent of pursuing opposition to Blair by other means. The giveaway in his interview was his assertion that Margaret Thatcher took the view "that important decisions should be taken by Cabinet".
Yeah, right. I remember Michael Heseltine resigning for precisely that reason. "I can't sit around here all day discussing stuff and consulting people. I'm off," he said, as he stormed out of the cabinet room.
The idea that Blair rides roughshod over constitutional conventions in a way that none of his predecessors would have done is a myth. The centralisation of power in the Prime Minister's office is a trend that has been observable almost since the time of Walpole. The Cabinet ceased to be the main deliberative body of government fairly soon after it took over that role from the Privy Council. It comes back to life only in times of crisis or for reasons of expediency. It is not true, for example, that "the Cabinet now ... doesn't make decisions" as Lord Butler alleged. Only two months ago the decision to deploy the Black Watch to central Iraq had to be embarrassingly delayed until it could be made formally by the whole Cabinet, because Blair wanted to make sure that all his senior ministers were bound by collective responsibility for it.
The fact is that Blair is a powerful prime minister because he has a majority of 159 in the House of Commons. In such a situation, it is difficult for Parliament to exercise control over the executive. That might be an argument for a proportional voting system, or for a written constitution of US-style checks and balances, but Lord Butler does not propose those. No, his solution is to "break away from the party whip" in the Commons and to let the unelected Lords, of which he just happens to be a member, obstruct the Government more. The first is wishful thinking - the party whip is what makes democracy work, and is as venerable a part of the unwritten constitution as cabinet government - and the second is simply undemocratic.
What, in any case, are these "extremely bad Bills" that would have benefited from so-called "open debate"? The poll tax? The Dangerous Dogs Bill? No - those were passed by Conservative governments that Lord Butler was happy to serve, including seven years of John Major, the most useless prime minister of recent times.
(Still, at least one cabinet minister has taken Lord Butler's criticisms seriously. David Blunkett has been commendably open in sharing his view of his colleagues' policies with MPs and the voting public.)
Lord Butler was cabinet secretary under Blair for eight months and did not get on with him. They had a struggle even before Blair came to office over Jonathan Powell's status in Downing Street as chief of staff. And there is another factor, which is Lord Butler's dismay at the way his inquiry into the intelligence on Iraq was described as a whitewash. In order to prove his independence, he seems to have decided to broaden his criticism of Blair's decision-making processes over the war into a full-blooded attack on "bad government".
The paradox of Lord Butler's broadside is that he is revealed as an ideological opponent of Blair's, a small-c conservative if not a big-C one. Which means that the clean bill of health given to the case for the Iraq war by his report in July should be all the more convincing. Blair was prepared to submit the most controversial decision he has made as Prime Minister to the scrutiny of a committee chaired by someone deeply sceptical of him - and the worst that it could come up with was a few complaints about process. Lord Butler should praise this government for its openness and accountability.Reuse content