Leading article: It is too soon for the Tories to gloat over Labour's mistakes

Share

Now is the time, at the end of what has been a terrible week for the Government, for what Americans call a reality check. There are many questions of detail that will be investigated by the inquiry set up by Gordon Brown. There are important implications for policy on the national children's register that is supposed to "go live" next year, and on identity cards further down the line. But the big political question posed by the case of the missing HMRC discs is this: is there any reason to suppose that a Conservative government would be any more competent in the administration of public services than the present incumbents?

The short answer is no. The opinion-poll evidence that David Cameron and George Osborne are now regarded as more competent than Mr Brown and Alistair Darling must be accounted an overreaction. Of course, Mr Cameron made a reasonable show of righteousness in the House of Commons this week. In truth, the intensity of Gordon Brown's embarrassment concealed the fact that there was little sensible that the Leader of the Opposition could say. The danger for Mr Cameron was that he would muff his big moment: the press gallery was full and everyone was expecting great sport. So when the Prime Minister pointed out that the Conservative Party at the last election proposed £660m in savings in "data processing" at HM Revenue and Customs, Labour MPs roared their delighted approval.

Mr Cameron took the high rhetorical ground, saying, with emphasis, that "to try to blame the Opposition is pathetic". It was a put-down of Blairite style that parried the attack and rallied his own side, but it was hardly an answer. Mr Brown had a good point. If – and it is not clear to what extent this is true – cost-cutting was a factor in the foul-up, then surely the pressures would have been greater under a Conservative government.

The question of cost control is, in any case, only part of a larger issue: that of how to manage efficient public services. Mr Cameron, it is often observed, is typical of modern politicians in having no experience of management. His elevation to the leadership was hailed as the triumph of special adviserdom.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, on the other hand, is an example of that increasing rarity: a politician that has had a proper job; in his case as an executive at Tate & Lyle. Yet few politicians of whatever party take public administration seriously. There may be a select committee with those words in its title – indeed, earlier this week Ed Miliband, minister for the Cabinet Office, admitted that most ministers were "undertrained" for their jobs, which was a polite way of saying "not trained at all".

The last politician to take up the cause was Al Gore. When he ran for the vice-presidency in 1992, his big idea (apart from the environment) was "Reinventing Government". His researchers exposed some of the wilder excesses of military procurement – screws for which the US taxpayer was charged hundreds of dollars – but the programme rapidly faded from view when the election was over.

So Mr Cameron can wallow in Mr Brown's discomfort now. He can bat aside serious points made by the Prime Minister because the music just happened to stop when Mr Brown was nowhere near a chair. The Conservatives will benefit because Labour's reputation for competence has, somewhat unfairly, been lost in the internal mail.

But unless the Conservatives start doing some serious work on how to transform the culture of inefficiency and getting-by that suffuses so much of the public sector, their turn to be apologising for the inexcusable will come soon enough.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms