Lord Butler should have voiced his criticism sooner

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The Independent Online

What, we ask, took the good Lord Butler of Brockwell, so long? In his first interview since delivering his report on intelligence and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the former Cabinet Secretary has torn a strip off the Prime Minister for exerting too much central control, not consulting enough and confusing salesmanship with governing.

This is all done, of course, in the elegant and elliptical style unique to our best mandarins. For all the coded restraint, however, Lord Butler's words constitute a devastating indictment of the way Cabinet government has become degraded since Tony Blair took office.

Decisions, he says, tend to be made by "rather small groups of people" who are not necessarily representative of all the groups of interests in Government, with insufficient opportunity for others to "debate, dissent and modify". He argues that Parliament currently exerts insufficient control over the executive, which is free to introduce "bad Bills", huge amounts of regulation and generally "to do what it likes". He also chides what he sees as the tendency to prefer the advice of political appointees over that of experienced civil servants - well, he would, wouldn't he? But that does not necessarily invalidate his observation.

None of this should come as news to anyone who followed the proceedings of the Hutton inquiry, which exposed the Prime Minister's practice of making vital decisions of state, informally and un-minuted, among friends. Nor should it be news to anyone who heard the complaints of both Robin Cook and Clare Short, after they had resigned, about how the Cabinet was repeatedly bypassed. Lord Butler himself also drew attention to the liabilities of informal government in his report on Iraq's weapons - but he declined to apportion blame.

After the diet of fast-tracked visas for nannies, misused rail tickets and paternity suits we have been fed in recent weeks in the guise of politics, it is refreshing to hear criticism that penetrates to the heart of what matters in government. If Lord Butler is hinting, with hindsight, that his report let the Government off too lightly, that is a welcome realisation. The pity is that he did not rectify his error rather sooner and speak up more boldly.

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