Leading article: Take Tubby off the payroll

Click to follow
The Independent Online
What do Charles Wardle and Richard Page have in common? Answer: nobody had heard of them before this week, when one resigned as a minister and the other took over. Even their families struggled to remember them. They recalled the name, but the face was somehow ... elusive.

The harsh truth is that ministerial rank is no longer a defining feature. There are now dozens in the growing crowd of Her Majesty's ministers. Foremost in the serried ranks are the members of the Cabinet, the big fish who earn a lot of money. They take all the decisions and employ Ministers of State. They in turn earn a lot of money, attend all the conferences and take on Parliamentary Private Secretaries. These last earn more money than MPs, but not much.

So how comes it that in the period when the Conservatives have been shrinking government, they have been growing ministers? Ministers for whom, according to Mr Wardle and others, there is precious little real work.

Cabinet kudos is one explanation. The scene is the Conservative conference. After the big policy debate, each cabinet grandee, summing up from the platform, prefaces his or her speech by introducing the ministerial group: "Madame Chairman, could I first pay tribute to the sterling work of my splendid team [sweeping gesture, indulgent grin], Sir Angus Bounder, Earl Bollinger, Gillian Twinsett and, of course, my ever tolerant PPS [mild laughter], Jeremy Titt [applause]." As in the Middle East or parts of Africa, where status is measured by the ownership of oxen or camels, ownership of junior ministers has gradually become the true mark of cabinet worth.

The other reason for this profligacy is patronage. The longer a party is in government, the more favours it owes loyal backbenchers for foregoing their consciences. "We've really got to do something for Tubby this time, PM," says the Chief Whip. The intellectually challenged Tubby duly becomes PPS to a secretary of state who has recently offended the Prime Minister. So, year by year, the payroll vote grows and, presumably, ministerial productivity falls.

Students of the work of the American economist and Nobel prizewinner Professor James Buchanan will find none of this surprising. His public choice theories postulate that whereas monopolies in the private sector use their position to get extra money, monopoly suppliers of public goods (such as government) use theirs to attain greater leisure and prestige. The only way to prevent this is to subject the monopoly to competition.

This newspaper's proposal is that we break up the last great monopoly - and offer the great offices of state for tender throughout Europe. If their bids are right we could then end up with the Germans running our economy, the French controlling education and the Danes administering our social services. Let Tubby spend more time with his family.