Leading article: Control freaks, but are they in control?

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The Independent Online

The Butler report on Iraq's WMD was critical of what has been dubbed "sofa-style government". It chastised the Prime Minister for making crucial decisions in informal meetings without minute-taking by the Civil Service. The documentary confirms that this was indeed standard procedure. Bill Bush, an adviser until the 2001 election, even recalls important decisions being made in corridors.

Other worrying dynamics at the heart of power are also laid bare: focus groups have been elevated to a position of disproportionate importance; right-wing newspapers frequently drive government policy on Europe and other matters; the frosty relationship between Mr Blair and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, dominates political calculation; policy is worked out on the hoof. Geoff Mulgan, Downing Street's former head of policy, also reveals that the suspicion that colleagues were keeping diaries impeded the frank exchange of ideas.

Behind all this is an imbalance of power. Too much authority is invested in unelected advisers (despite their claims to have been frustrated much of the time). And too little remains in those traditional centres of counter-balancing power: Cabinet and Parliament. The access to the Prime Minister enjoyed by special advisers is the envy of even senior ministers. Their influence also outstrips that of many top civil servants. This raises serious questions of accountability. Civil servants are supposed to be impartial. Cabinet ministers are, on the whole, MPs and therefore answer to the electorate. But to whom, other than the Prime Minister, do special advisers answer?

Iraq demonstrated the degree to which the authority of the Cabinet has diminished. What should have been a rigorous examination chamber for the Prime Minister's invasion plans was little more than a rubber stamp. Similarly, when Parliament voted on the matter, too many MPs squandered their own authority to make the Prime Minister think again.

There might be some justification for such arrangements if they made for effective government. But they do not. As Steve Richards remarks today, Downing Street may aspire to control freakery but is "rarely in control". In the interests of good governance and democratic accountability, Downing Street must change its ways.

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