Tag Archives: Ministers

This week’s media picks

From a selection of media stories: Labour gives itself a little bit more definition. Do senior Tories think they will fail to win the next election? Here comes the Budget…

FT: Political risk rises high up the agenda in boardrooms

Business leaders are feeling under pressure on a range of political/policy issues, eg energy prices, immigration, Scottish independence, EU membership, the “debacle” over airport development, or the “complete failure to deal with planning”. As one FTSE chairman put it: “It is so difficult to know whether the rhetoric is reality.” (A perennial problem when it comes to politics.)

FT: City on alert for Labour’s political reckoning

Recent bank bonuses seem to have emboldened shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, to tolerate, or is that, promise, a bank bonus tax. Labour is hoping to raise up to £2 billion, which would be used to fund its job guarantee for the young jobless. This may harm Labour’s business credentials, but will it be a vote winner?

FT: Ed Miliband: Europe needs reform but Britain belongs at its heart

In a further attempt this week by Labour to define its political positioning, its leader, Ed Miliband outlined his stance on the EU. He committed Labour to holding an in-out referendum, were there to be a further transfer of powers from the UK to the EU, something which is unlikely in the next Parliament. He conceded that the EU’s reputation is at a low ebb, and that “if Britain’s future in Europe is to be secured, Europe needs to work better for Britain.” To this end, a Labour government would seek tougher EU rules on immigration and foreign benefits claimants.

Guardian: Have Boris, Gove and Osborne written off the 2015 election?

Conservative Home editor, and former Tory MP, Paul Goodman, argues that the outbreak of infighting among senior Tories over the future leadership of the party betrays a lack of confidence in David Cameron’s ability to pull off a majority election win in 2015. By contrast, whatever the views of senior Labour politicians on Ed Miliband’s leadership, they are doing a good job at keeping them private. The more that Conservatives ventilate their problems publicly, the more likely that they will help Ed Miliband win.

 

Daily Telegraph: Budget 2014 announcement: What to expect

George Osborne will deliver the 2014 Budget at 12.30 Wednesday March 19. Here are some of the things to look out for, not that any of this has been pre-briefed, of course…

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Chancellor confirms nothing new under The Sun

On Wednesday, the Chancellor of the ExchequerGeorge Osborne, fulfilled his constitutional duty by confirming the past few weeks’ media speculation on what changes there should be to tax rates and allowances and how they would be funded. This is known as The Budget.

Each year beginning in early March, we avidly read the papers to see what lies in store for us and on Budget day, the Chancellor confirms that he has read them too.

Of course, Chancellors always mange to pull some rabbits out of the hat and catch us by surprise with a gleeful “tah-dah!” Although pensioners might be thinking that the freezing of their tax allowance looks more like a poisonous snake than a fluffy white rabbit. If this group of voters were less steadfast in their voting allegiances, it might have more of ta-ta effect. The self-same well-briefed papers seem to think so and have branded it straight away as “Granny Tax”.

Pre-briefing (or spinning, if you prefer) of the Budget is not new. We can speculate how hard Charlie WhelanEd Balls and Alastair Campbell worked in advance of Budgets to secure the headlines they wanted. And this year’s process has been amplified by the dynamics of coalition politics. The well-informed press speculation has partly been a reflection of the internal negotiation between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers on what should be in the Budget and each party’s determination to show that they managed to put their stamp on the final package.

Speculation on the content of Budgets is not new and has always been driven by a combination of journalistic competition, political gossip and in recent decades, by politicians’ determined efforts to “manage” the media’s coverage.

It doesn’t always work, of course, and according to the Chancellor, the reason he is getting such bad headlines on the “Granny Tax” is because it was “the bit of news people didn’t have”. Shadow Treasury minister, Chris Leslie has said that the leaks were a “serious breach” and an “insult” to Parliament.

Chris Leslie’s criticism won’t hurt George Osborne, but as a mark of how far the conduct of politics has changed, just look at what happened to Labour’s first post-war Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, as described in meticulous detail in the late Ben Pimlott’s masterful biography of him.

As Dalton passed through central lobby on his way to deliver his 1947 Budget, he whispered a few of the budget details to a journalist on the Star, a London evening paper. The grateful recipient was able to phone through to his news desk just in time to catch the old Stop Press or “fudge” section of the paper before the presses started rolling. A few thousand copies ran with the line on gambling: “There will also be a tax on dogs and football pools, but not on horse racing.” Minutes later, the sub-editors removed the “will” and toned it down to “Also likely to be…”

The offending tip off appeared on the streets just 20 minutes before Dalton actually spoke in no more than 260 copies that were sold on Fleet Street, Middle Temple Lane and at a bus stop near Aldwych. Competing newspapers noticed it, brought it to the attention of suitably outraged opposition MPs, and an urgent Commons question was tabled the next day. Dalton defended himself as best he could but tendered his resignation that evening, as he believed that “one must always own up”.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee, possibly for a variety of reasons, accepted Dalton’s resignation, but stressed that “the principle of the inviolability of the Budget is of the highest importance and the discretion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer […] must be beyond question”.

The days of the inviolability of the Budget are long gone, but that can also mean that Chancellors’ “tah-dah!” moments are not always of their own planning.

In praise of special advisers

Special advisers have never exactly been viewed with affection. In the first episode of Yes Minister, Jim Hacker arrives in the Department for Administrative Affairs for the first time accompanied by his special adviser, but before they even reach his office, the adviser is bundled off unceremoniously into a cupboard. Oh, how we laughed.

We also laughed long and hard at the absurdities of Malcolm Tucker et al in The Thick of It. As a former special adviser myself across six different Whitehall departments I thought it was hilarious. On occasions, some of the scenarios were eerily familiar in spirit, if not in fact.

Of course, the truth is much more mundane. Real special advisers are not out of central casting, nor are they all in the mould of Alistair Campbell, Charlie Whelan or Andy Coulson. Clare Short, who had two special advisers of her own, famously described them as the “people who live in the dark”. I took that as a compliment, as special advisers should usually be invisible to the public.

But they also are serious and conscientious providers of political, policy and communications support to ministers. And with the exception of the occasional Sir Humphrey, they are welcomed by civil servants. They are a valuable means for handling the more overtly political aspects of modern government and can help guide, though not instruct, civil servants on a minister’s thinking. As Sir John Elvidge former permanent secretary of the Scottish Executive, quoted in Civil Service Live Network, put it: “special advisers who genuinely know the minds of their ministers – rather than those who ascribe their own thoughts to a minister – are invaluable, because ministerial time is one of the scarcest commodities.”

The origins of the special adviser role are opaque but arguably started to take form during Harold Wilson’s first premiership in the 1960s. He appointed Marcia Williams as his political secretary and complained later how the civil servants tried to marginalise her and keep her in an office far from his. No wonder she was rumoured to have been a source for some of the scenes from Yes Minister. He also sought independent advice on the economy from two Hungarian émigrés, Nicholas Kaldor and Tommy Balogh – referred to unaffectionately by civil servants at the time as Buda and Pest.

Gradually the use of special advisers became more established with codes of conduct and formal appointment as temporary civil servants. Their numbers grew steadily under the Major, Blair and Brown premierships. Although there was some carping at this, they are now a fact of political life.

David Cameron pledged opportunistically to reduce the number of special advisers but now that he is in government he may appreciate that they have their uses after all. He has now had to face this reality and sanction the appointment of an additional seven to serve junior Liberal Democrat ministers. This is another evolution, as previously they only served Cabinet ministers.

Perhaps now we can have a more mature discussion on the role and number of special advisers. If No 10 had had a stronger team of political and policy advisers, it might have avoided some of the damaging retreats and uncertainties on issues like NHS reform, sentencing policy and the stewardship of public forests. We may be a long way from the US where an incoming President brings in a top echelon of 2,000 appointees to run the government, but our system of government and policy making might just benefit from a little more light being shed on its inner workings.

Political scandal? Time to kick the dog again…

Last year I blogged about lobbying, pointing out how the poor old lobbyist seems to be the end of the easy target in a political crisis, the dog that politicians and media go home and kick at the end of a bad day.

It seems that history is repeating itself and, once again, a lazy shortcut down the path to an unpopular but misunderstood cohort of practitioners of the supposedly ‘dark arts’ of lobbying is once again being beaten.

The scandal of Liam Fox’s friend Adam Werrity has predictably resulted in a call for tighter restrictions and regulations on lobbyists. This case is very similar to last year’s case on which I blogged – insofar as it hasn’t actually involved a bona fide lobbyist!

Proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists have long been supported within the public affairs industry, mainly because the industry has nothing to hide. In the recent case, it was Adam Werritty, who must surely have had no doubt that what he was doing was not wholly ethical or above board. In other words, he did have something to hide.

Being neither a lobbyist or in a position where he would have wanted to publicise his dubious activities, how on earth would a register of lobbyists have made a difference? Werritty would not have been required to be on the register – he’s not a lobbyist, he’s just a chancer of a businessman who abused the position of a friend. And even if he were a lobbyist it is unlikely that he would (a) register himself and put himself up for scrutiny or (b) given his clear lack of moral or ethical compunction, be swayed by any statutory requirement to register.

But once again, the whole saga provides two of the most abhorred sections of society – politicians and journalists – to take the moral high ground and kick the lobbying dog. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

Manifesto makes a point

The Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos will be published next week. These will provide an invaluable resource for insomniacs and political anoraks around the country, as well as giving us an insight into the likely policy priorities of the next Government.

Manifestos are necessarily limited in what they cover, with the infamous exception of Labour’s 1983 offering, “the longest suicide note in history”. They are usually confined to broad policy statements and worded with enough ambiguity to allow future ministers a liberal interpretation of what exactly are their commitments.

But elections also provide an opportunity for outside interests to enter the policy debate. That’s why the run-up to the General Election has seen various businesses and campaign organisations put forward their own manifestos, visions and policy demands.

One valuable contribution comes from vaccine manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur MSD’s manifesto, Putting vaccines at the heart of health care. It calls for a full-scale review of vaccination policy to give it a more central role in the provision of health care.

In his first speech as Health Secretary in June 2009, Andy Burnham said that prevention is a “long-term insurance policy against spending challenges”. The focus, however, has been on attempting to change life-style choices. No one is arguing against this, but if policy makers want to enhance prevention, then greater importance should be given to vaccination, which is a far more effective means of preventing ill-health than relying on people to change their eating and drinking habits.

Vaccination can prevent more than 20 infectious diseases and has helped eradicate smallpox. Only the provision of safe water has done more than vaccines to reduce mortality. But too often it is seen as something that is only for children. The NHS Choices website lists 17 vaccines (including next stage doses and boosters) that are offered routinely to “everyone” in the UK. Yet only two, flu and pneumonia, are for adults.

Our immune systems decline with age, which leads to more frequent and more severe infections. And with the over-60s population predicted to increase by 160% between 1999 and 2050, increasing infections in the older population will increase the burden on the NHS.

That’s why Sanofi’s manifesto echoes the calls of European health academics for a “life course” approach to vaccination. Vaccination programmes should start from 50 years of age, before age-related decline in the immune system begins. The recent approval by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation for a shingles vaccine to be available on the NHS, albeit from the age of 70, is a start. This could help reduce the incidence of this debilitating disease by half, and thereby save the NHS care costs.

Judging by the three-way bun-fight between Andy Burnham and his Conservative and Lib Dem shadows, Andrew Lansley and Norman Lamb on Newsnight yesterday, the election campaign is unlikely to see serious debate on the future of health policy.

Officials and health professionals will read Sanofi’s manifesto with care but will politicians get the point about vaccination? Perhaps when the election is over, they will read other people’s manifestos.

Don’t disengage because of the election

With the general election almost certain to be held on 6 May, businesses and campaign groups could be forgiven for thinking that there is no point in responding or examining final reports from Government and Parliament, as they will die a natural death when the election is called.

But that would be a mistake, as most of the issues and policy proposals being discussed will be resurrected under the new Parliament/Government. Issues such as climate change, energy security, social care reform, high speed rail, infrastructure investment and planning reform will not disappear just because there has been an election. These are long-term problems for which policy makers will still be seeking solutions after 6 May, regardless of which party is in power.

Government departments currently have live consultations on issues such as a new planning policy statement, taxation of insurance companies, Social Fund reform, retailers’ compliance with the groceries supply code of practice, the Renewable Heat Incentive and regulation of local bus services.

At the same time, Select Committees will shortly be publishing reports on a range of subjects such as the major road networks, the future of local and regional media, low carbon technologies, bioengineering and the end of cheques.

A Conservative government would strive ostentatiously to portray itself as different from the current administration. And if Labour is re-elected against the odds, it will want to show that it is making a fresh start. It will be new Labour without using the word ‘new’. So there will be changes to headline policies, and different approaches to tackling the fiscal deficit will have differing effects on expenditure on current programmes.

But many of the same macro- and micro-policy issues will still be unresolved. Policy proposals being put forward today by businesses will still be relevant after 6 May. If anything, the new administration may be more receptive to policy solutions that require a longer term view. Even though ministers are presently switching increasingly into election mode, officials will still be developing policy proposals, even if only to prepare for an incoming Conservative Government. They will still be receptive to a well-argued and persuasive case that enables them to offer solutions to their new ministerial masters.

Select Committee reports published over the next few weeks risk being ignored during the increasingly frenzied pre-election period. But they will still help set the agenda in particular policy areas by offering authoritative recommendations for policy makers. And they can still, potentially, be used by businesses and policy campaigners as independent justification for their own proposals.

It is easy to be distracted by the hurly burly of the election campaign but anyone seriously interested in affecting future policy needs to keep their eye on policy development right up until the end of this Parliament.

And then start all over again in the new one.

A vote for hanging

Recent opinion polls raise the prospect of a hung Parliament following the general election. This has put a spring in the step of Labour Party campaign managers who think they might still win and caused jitters in the Conservative Party high command, which suddenly fears election victory may slip away from them. It also caused mild panic among City currency traders, who sent the pound below $1.50.

No-one likes a hung Parliament, apart from the Liberal Democrats and the minor parties, who will try to exchange their support for the governing party for items on their policy wish-lists. Labour and the Conservatives will maintain the fiction that they are focused on winning an overall majority, but privately they will be working out what to do in the event that no-one wins outright.

But what would it mean for businesses if the electorate fails to make up its mind? Of course, there will be a new raft of Ministers and special advisers to get to grips with, but those Ministers only make decisions based on official advice. And, crucially, the officials tasked with shaping and implementing policy will still be at their desks, whatever the outcome. They will remain critical stakeholders for businesses wanting to engage on policy. And policy success, as now, comes from a well-prepared, well-articulated case that persuades officials, not from connections or favours.

Parliament would also become more important, as a minority Government would need every vote to get its legislation through. Minor parties could have undue influence as they threaten to withhold the handful of votes needed to secure a majority in the lobby, while individual MPs would be more able to amend legislation or pressure Ministers into policy concessions or spending commitments. And the in-built Government majority on Select Committees would disappear, increasing the scope for inquiries and reports to be more critical of Ministers – and businesses under scrutiny.

This would require businesses also to engage more widely and actively among MPs, since they would not be able to rely on Ministers riding roughshod over minority views, especially on controversial proposals such as new runways, power stations, wind farms and large-scale retail and office developments. And with enough MPs pressing, Ministers could also be expected to make uncomfortable concessions imposing tougher environmental restrictions or new issue-led taxes.

Businesses may be hoping as much as Labour and Conservative politicians that there is a decisive election outcome. But if there isn’t, good businesses would still be able to negotiate the policy labyrinth, though it may take a little more effort than today.