Mary Dejevsky: A strong government refuses to countenance failure

If civil servants act to thwart measures they dislike or deem contrary to their interests, this raises the very serious question of the Government's power to govern
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ever since the Government's spending review, and the emergency Budget that preceded it, a tragic chorus has been chanting warnings from the wings. Well-meaning in intent, intellectual in tone, fatalistic in substance, its song is designed at once to scare the Coalition and appeal to its better (i.e. Liberal Democrat) nature. All that is needed, these apocalyptic observers wail, is a Plan B. There has to be a contingency for failure.

As passions have risen and protesters have marched, the calls have become louder and more urgent. Woe is us, we hear. Alas and alack, woe is us. If George Osborne and his cohorts turn out to be wrong, or the international economic climate deteriorates further, everything this country stands for will be lost; everything everyone has worked for.

Then suddenly, this week, word slipped out that a possible deus ex machina had been sighted. It was still far away, still partly concealed, and not quite fully formed, but it was the first hint that a fall-back position might be in the making. The gist was that none other than the Cabinet Secretary and former chief mandarin at the Treasury, Sir Gus O'Donnell, had compiled a paper, setting out measures that might be taken in the event that the economy did not start to grow as promised.

Leaked details suggested that the remedies could entail another injection of money into the system, direct government lending to business, and a speeding-up of new infrastructure projects to boost employment. Even tax cuts were apparently mooted. Indistinct the outlines may have been, but the significance was obvious. Here, on the horizon, was the longed-for Plan B.

Much less obvious, though, is how far this possible fall-back scenario is for real, and how far it is a feint – produced and leaked with the express intention of keeping the doom-mongers at bay. Personally, I hope that it is the latter. Because, for truly reforming politicians, a Plan B is something to be resisted at all costs. It is always and everywhere a sign of weakness. It is an invitation to dilute and trim something that makes sense only when left whole. It offers a temptation to backtrack with no excuses.

The time for Plans B (C, D and as many as you like) is before the main decisions are taken, not at the first intimations of faintheartedness. Determination to formulate policies, and then see them through, is the mark of strong leadership. I don't recall a Plan B ever being acknowledged, still less called for, by Margaret Thatcher. I suspect she would have run a mile. Anyone who might have nurtured a Plan B – Nigel Lawson, who, as Chancellor, had the pound shadow the Deutschmark, say – expected to pursue it on the quiet, and the policy was treated as tantamount to sedition when it was eventually exposed.

And Thatcher offers a lesson. The two phrases most closely identified with her time as Prime Minister are: "The Lady's not for turning" and "There Is No Alternative". They are the polar opposites of Plan B.

For the best part of six months it seemed that the Chancellor, in particular, was steadfastly keeping faith with those tenets, even if the actual "turning" and "TINA" phrases never crossed his lips. With the hints of Plan B, that impression of resolution has slipped.

Now it could be that, in their choice of words, as in their manner, George Osborne and David Cameron are concerned to exhibit a "softer" side out of deference to their Liberal Democrat partners. More likely, it reflects a generational and philosophical shift in their part of the Conservative Party, and a desire not to be seen as unreconstructed throwbacks to Thatcherism. The shift was summed up in Cameron's assertion, when he won the party leadership, that "there is such a thing as society; it's just not the same thing as the state".

"There Is No Alternative", they might think, sounds too absolute, too uncompromising for the new century. If that is so, however, such a bow towards modernity has a downside. Osborne's spending review offered a programme for action that was much praised at the time for its coherence. As winter has advanced, and each successive spending – or mostly saving – measure has been enshrined in legislation and laid before Parliament, opposition has grown more vocal and more desperate.

But it is not only, or potentially most damagingly, on the streets. The more insidious opposition comes from within. Any tensions within the Coalition at this stage are innocuous compared with the increasing hostility Cameron faces from the right of his party, from his MPs and in local organisations. Perhaps the greatest threat, though, is the rumoured disquiet in the upper ranks of the Civil Service.

If only a fraction of the speculation is true, Cameron would hardly be the first Prime Minister to face a strong preference for the status quo in Whitehall. But an uncooperative attitude from the very people whose job it is to facilitate the policies of the elected government may come perilously close to sabotage. Quite specifically, it is said, there are those in the upper echelons of the Civil Service who fear the consequences of the pace and depth of the Coalition's public spending cuts. If they act to thwart measures they dislike or deem contrary to their interests, this raises the very serious question of the Government's power to govern. For conspiracy theorists, it also opens the possibility that Plan B might not be a government contingency at all, but the creature of a lily-livered Whitehall.

Whatever the provenance of this document, this is no time – as Thatcher famously said in another context – "to go wobbly". If the Coalition believe that their policies, including spending cuts and structural reforms, are as essential to the country's future well-being as they insisted at the start, they must retain the courage of their convictions. By all means adjust at the margins, but resist special pleading and keep the central objective in sight. Seven months in is far too soon for any government to dabble in defeatism. If Cameron and Co believe it, they should say loud and clear that there is no alternative; "Plan B" is the language of losers.