Does the Prime Minister have enough power to govern effectively?

March 7, 2013

The rise in the general tax threshold – the part of a balanced package which the Liberal Democrats could claim as a triumph – became known beforehand. That was the good news. This meant that the Chancellor was landed on budget day with the revelation that pensioners, who already enjoyed a higher threshold, would not share in the benefit.

In the past, any budget leaks would have led to heads rolling. Budget secrecy is the bedrock on which the integrity of government is built. In 1947, Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer was obliged to resign for giving information to a journalist just minutes before his budget statement. In 2012, the process of discussing the budget with Liberal Democrat colleagues in the Coalition and the consequent widening of the circle of those in the know seems to have led to the leaks which undermined George Osborne and made his job almost impossible.

The best way to avoid any repetition is to make clear that the traditional rule will be enforced: consultation with Coalition partners must not be leaked. Budget leaks must entail automatic resignation. This is one of three recommendations I intend to give during oral evidence tomorrow before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons during an inquiry devoted partly to the lessons of the Coalition.

The Committee was established after the Coalition was formed with the remit of scrutinising the work of the Deputy Prime Minister, who has the lead responsibility under the Coalition for constitutional reform, and with considering constitutional issues in general. There is room for endless and academically fruitful discussion about the workings of British government, the powers of the Prime Minister, and the impact of coalition government on those powers. But it is more useful to focus on immediate and concrete matters.

Therefore, the second recommendation concerns political advisers within No 10. In 2011, the Prime Minister agreed with the Civil Service suggestion that a there should be a non-political “Number 10 Policy and Implementation Unit”. This was to substitute for the arrangement under previous governments whereby the No 10 Policy Unit had been staffed largely by political appointees. Using the excuse that the new Policy Unit needed to service and knit together both the Conservative and Liberal Democrats, the Civil Service thus made a nifty power grab.

Nick Clegg, however, obtained the entitlement to a small “Research and Analytics” unit. This has led to the curious situation that both the senior Civil Service and the Deputy Prime Minister have dedicated policy units but the Prime Minister does not. Cameron does have politically appointed special advisers but not enough of them.

He needs a Policy Unit with political loyalty to him and to his party. Politically-sensitive planning and coordinating tasks cannot be left to Civil Servants. There is good reason for No 10 to draw on the brains and experience of policy experts who are independent of the Conservatives and who may also have advised the previous Labour Governments. But these should be in addition to, not instead of, a party team.

One reason for the Prime Minister’s reluctance to boost the number of political advisers he employs at No 10 is that he needs to be seen to be applying the standards of economy to his personal machine that he is demanding from government departments. But it tends to be forgotten that some of the special advisers to the Centre are employed by Clegg and that they would have been financed in the previous Parliament by the Liberal Democrats’ share of the Short Money given to opposition parties in the House of Commons.

Besides that, employment of special advisers is one of the exceptional uses for which public funds are justified despite the economic problems of the country and the need to contain public expenditure. This is because they are essential to assure the governing capacity of the two member parties of the Coalition Government.

Third, the so-called “Cabinet Manual” must be allowed to lapse at the end of this Parliament. The Manual, which was finally published in October 2011 just before his retirement, was a personal project of Cabinet Secretary O’Donnell and of a narrow academic coterie. It proved controversial because some felt it contained novelties masquerading as established conventions, because one draft chapter arguably favoured the development of coalition rule, and because the entire idea of a quasi-constitutional compendium composed by officials was seen in some quarters as a Civil Service “power grab”. The publication shortly before the 2010 of a draft chapter about government formation following a hung election was a subject of special criticism.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website

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