Farewell to Mr Major's world, where chaps never resign

the opera house report
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The Independent Online
John Major still doesn't get it. The former Prime Minister has popped up to deplore the tone and conclusions of the Select Committee report on the Royal Opera House. He seems to have been particularly taken aback by the call for the resignation of the chairman, Lord Chadlington. According to Mr Major, Lord Chadlington, a friend, was "the solution, not the problem, and the recommendation that he should resign was bizarre".

In Mr Major's world, chaps don't resign. Whatever their mistakes, they are always well intentioned, and so they carry on. I dare say Mr Major thought that his failed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, had just the qualities he ascribes to Lord Chadlington, and that is why he allowed him to stay in office after his policies had resulted in the country's humiliating expulsion from the European exchange rate mechanism.

As a matter of fact, Lord Chadlington doesn't think that he did a bad job as chairman during the past 12 months or so, but he still resigned when called upon to do so by a unanimous parliamentary committee. As he explained to Deborah Ross in The Independent yesterday, "It seemed, in the circumstances, the only honourable thing to do. Lord Carrington, who is something of a hero of mine, resigned over the Falklands crisis even though it wasn't his fault. Someone had to accept responsibility, so he did. I am accepting responsibility in this instance."

Lord Chadlington, who is virtually the same age as John Major, thus reaches back to an older tradition of public service. Lord Carrington was Foreign Secretary in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. For him the war represented a failure of diplomacy, and so he left office. Lord Chadlington said that he spent 18 years supporting the Tory governments but when he looked back "the one thing they did wrong was not accepting responsibility when things went wrong".

Given that Mr Major is puzzled by such a "bizarre" attitude, he should contemplate the devastating results of the monthly Gallup poll published in The Daily Telegraph last Friday. The headline accurately summed up the findings: "Labour stumbles but the Tories are cursed with a mark of Cain". Over 60 per cent of the electorate believes that the Tories are mean-spirited, incompetent, arrogant, out of touch with the modern world, not concerned with ordinary people, lacking in a clear sense of direction and divided.

If you believe that resigning when things go wrong on your watch comes from an out-of-date code of honour, then it follows that any reports that may be written to explain disasters should avoid calling a spade a spade. "Type of garden implement" would be more judicial. At least I think that is what Mr Major meant when he said that select committee reports should "err in understatement ... they should acknowledge difficulties in dealing with complex problems, and, above all they should be demonstrably fair". The report on the Royal Opera House fails these tests, according to the former prime minister.

As a matter of fact I read the report with some trepidation. Press coverage had warned how strong the language was. The pen of the chairman of the committee, Gerald Kaufman, had apparently cleared away all ambiguities and thus the account was written in unusually clear language. Had Mr Kaufman let himself be carried away, and with him his fellow members of Parliament, Labour and Tory alike?

Not at all. It is a very muscular report. It engages with the witnesses as they come forward to explain away the disasters over which they presided. Excuses are tested and often found weak. In effect the committee said to the former chairman, Sir Angus Stirling, and the former director, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, you say that the trustees believed this and thought that. Very well, let us inspect the board minutes and see if they confirm your account.

The committee's conclusion is that Sir Jeremy sought to hide the "abysmal failure" to find a home for the opera and ballet companies during the rebuilding of Covent Garden. Likewise when the MPs were told that a finance committee examined, month by month, the actual and projected income against budget, they asked to see a month-by-month balance sheet to demonstrate the path of the deficit. In reply, the present chief executive, Mary Allen, replied that it was not possible "to let you have the financial information you have asked for, since the Royal Opera House has not in the past produced it". One of Ms Allen's colleagues explained: such financial forecasts as existed were left on a shelf while planning proceeded willy nilly without reference to them.

This carelessness with public money has been going on for a long time. An inquiry conducted as long ago as 1983 found that a greater priority must be given to financial objectives in the trade-off with artistic desires. In 1992 Lady Warnock discovered that "there are no indications as to how the closure period of 30 months will be financed, what activities the Royal Opera House might pursue during this period and where these activities might take place". Even Lord Chadlington seems to have been cursed with the same debilitating lassitude from which his predecessors suffered. When he began his chairmanship, there was no qualified finance director in post. It took him 10 months to install one - and this dilatoriness in the midst of a financial crisis!

So the select committee decided to recommend something which is no doubt completely incomprehensible to Mr Major - sack the lot of them. The former prime minister would have conducted a well-balanced re-shuffle with perhaps one or two minor casualties, while Mr Kaufman's committee administered shock treatment. I say, thank goodness the connection between office and responsibility has been re-established in the public service. Even poor Lord Chadlington, fallen as he is upon his sword, agrees with that.

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