Treadmill that weakens good government

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HESELTINE'S heart attack probably removes him from the ranks of potential Tory leaders, and makes him more clearly the elder statesman. It is a reminder that our battered country's favourite punchbags are mortal, too. But the only surprising thing is how few coronaries senior ministers suffer. Although the job can be grindingly hard, sheer enjoyment seems to protect the big beasts. It is the broken ones who tend to drop.

But physical survival is only one way of measuring overload, and a pretty poor one at that. The burden on senior ministers ought to be more discussed. It has become excessive and contributes to bad government. Ministers are struggling vainly against clogged diaries as they try to find the time and energy to initiate policies, think fresh thoughts or even dictate thoughtful speeches. And most of them fail in that struggle: one cabinet minister recently displayed a typed daily diary that had meetings scheduled at 15-minute intervals throughout the long working day. There was an element of pride in waving the thing about, but it demonstrated why so little new thinking emanated from his department.

The new pressures include, it must be admitted, ever-proliferating demands from the media. Television and radio outlets compete aggressively for time from the big names, specialist reporters seek regular conversations, lobby gossip cannot be safely ignored. Question Time requires more preparation than most departmental meetings. Self-important pundits, like me, demand lunches and private chats before complaining in print that the wretched minister, panting on his daily treadmill, 'lacks a strategic overview'.

The European Community is, however, a bigger villain still. Most big departmental jobs require a huge amount of shuttling about the Community, long meetings at Brussels, regular phone conversations with European colleagues. That makes it even more important to find time to take the parliamentary temperature.

Behind all that are the red boxes. Few ministers risk the displeasure of senior officials by demanding that they be sent less paperwork, or that it should arrive earlier in the day. I know of one who firmly informed his private office that he drank, and expected to be incapable of performing Her Majesty's business after 7pm. This was untrue. It worked, in that the red boxes came earlier and emptier. But his career did not prosper.

An alternative strategy is for ministers simply not to return the paperwork. Since nothing happens in Whitehall without the paper, this means that decisions can be evaded until the minister is ready. Sir Norman Fowler, now the Tory chairman, was famous for such ruses: the author of Ministers Decide was rumoured to keep red boxes for months in the boot of his ministerial Jaguar while he prevaricated. It may have made for better decisions in the end, but it seems a rather desperate remedy.

Ministerial overload is not new, but diaries, memoirs and the testimony of individual politicians suggest that it is getting worse. Even so, the most resilient and intellectually active ministers can still find the time to think, plan and pounce. Douglas Hurd makes real speeches, and thinks aloud about issues beyond his own patch. Michael Portillo's review of government spending, whether it succeeds or fails, is a bold attempt to recapture at least some political initiative from those old adversaries, habit and routine. Alan Clark's diaries record his desperate fight while a military procurement minister for his own radical ideas about defence spending.

But for most ministers, for most of their time, overwork crowds out individual initiative or serious thought. That in itself downgrades politicians. In his gloomier moments, Michael Heseltine has sometimes wondered whether his life as a minister changed anything in the real world: would not every decision he made have been taken by A N Other in the same job, dictated by elementary political logic, civil servants or the press? (If this elegaic theme bothers him as he recuperates, Mr Heseltine can reassure himself that he made more difference than most. For a start, the Liverpool initiative of 1981 would not have happened without him.)

Relentless pressure certainly means that elected leaders become increasingly dependent on other people's judgements. Mostly, these are the cautious judgements of bureaucrats - and the civil servants might tartly ask whether it was they, or creative politicians, who dreamt up the poll tax. Often, it is the snapshot judgements of journalists riding the roller-coaster of daily newsgathering. But we are a chancy, unreliable lot: look how we demanded Norman Lamont's head, then turned on John Major when he delivered it.

So ministerial power declines. Instead, we have journalism ameliorated by bureaucracy. It is impossible to prove that government-by-mandarin or government-by-hack is worse than government-by-minister. Indeed we cannot, on a daily basis, distinguish them. But after a year of botched and delayed decisions, uninspiring speeches and U-turns - evidence of ministers who, after 14 years in power, are pooped - the time has come for a fresh start. Ministers who want to make a difference ought to rethink their working day, their own priorities, their relations with officials and journalists, the staffing of their private offices. Ought to, but won't: most of them are too overworked to do anything about their overwork problem except to toss it listlessly into the pending tray, and dream of a quiet weekend in Venice.