Three Christmas presents for a Cabinet that lacks political grip

At this time of the year hapless members of the Cabinet, and even the Prime Minister himself, are entitled to some charity. We might usefully consider the gifts we would put under their trees on Christmas morning.  

Top of the list could well be both a Peloton and a deckchair.

Sarah Healey, permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), happily trilled in October that she preferred to work from home so she could spend more time on her Peloton exercise bike.  

As the Taliban took over and Afghans loyal to the West fled for their lives, the top mandarin at the Foreign Office, Sir Phillip Barton, preferred to lounge on holiday rather than return to work to deal with the crisis.

The bike and the easy chair would be a visible reminder to Cabinet members of the failure of the government to take control of the administrative machine.

A third present would be allowed, since the Prime Minister himself made it acceptable to quote Lenin, in his notorious address to the CBI at the end of last month, noting that communism equalled Soviet power plus electrification.  

In an article “Advice of an Onlooker”, published in “Pravda” on the third anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in 1920, Lenin brilliantly set out five key principles to be followed for obtaining control of an organisation or a state.  

Perhaps there is some advice to be found there. The pandemic has shown even more clearly the contempt in which elected politicians are held by bureaucrats and advisors. Members of the latter two groups feel free to undermine, or even contradict, government policy on public platforms.

They routinely attempt to terrify ministers by projections and scenarios relating to Covid-19 which are implausible. The latest illustration was provided only last week by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).  

The usually astute Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, was persuaded by UKHSA to assert that not only were there 200,000 new Omicron infections every day, but their number was doubling every two days. The latter implied that before the end of the year the entire population of the UK would have contracted Omicron.

The slight problem with this was that the data produced independently by both the Office for National Statistics and the King’s College London Zoe app showed nothing of the kind was happening.  

Sure, cases of Covid-19 were rising.  But the doubling time was not two, but some five to seven days.  This seemingly small difference has a massive effect on the speed with which the virus spreads.  

The UKHSA figure was merely an extrapolation of existing data. These calculations heavily rely on the variables that one chooses to take into account, and are not exact science.

But for the bureaucrats, the job was done. The public had been scared into a voluntary lockdown.

The lack of political grip extends into more routine things, like the renewal of driving licences and passports. Last month, a cross-party group of MPs demanded that the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, take “urgent action” to deal with the backlog at the DVLA. 

But even though lockdown was lifted in the summer and workers notionally went back to work, the average waiting time for a licence renewal has actually increased.

Ministers appear not to grasp how to take control of the apparatus of the state.  And this thought brings me neatly to that final present to members of the Cabinet, Lenin’s principles, slim enough to fit into their stockings.

So, with a Peleton, a deck chair and a paper by Lenin, ministers have much to look forward to on Christmas Day.

As published in City AM Thursday 23rd December 2021
Image: Flickr

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