Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Treasury versus the rest – and the EU Referendum. The players in the IDS departure

To those of us who are not Westminster insiders the idea that a senior Secretary of State like Duncan Smith has little policy freedom where expenditure is concerned and must at all times kowtow to the Treasury is bizarre. In the Business world (of which I am more familiar) a senior executive running a Division which spends (most of them) would submit a Budget and seek approval from the Board (I once did this in Shell for a $1.5billion project). The Board discusses and approves, modifies or rejects the proposal. Once accepted the Executive then gets on with implementation. But in Government, or this one anyway, there seems to be no such process. The Chancellor (and colleagues around the Cabinet table) do not approve a budget such as that for Work and Pensions and then allow the Secretary of State to implement. The Chancellor actually decides the policy and announces it! (The same for Education recently).

In the past couple of years I interviewed for magazine articles both Steve Webb (Smith’s Pensions Minister) and Ros Altmann his successor. Both told me (my words not precisely theirs) how their hands were tied by the Treasury. (Incidentally neither even mentioned Duncan Smith, their Boss, and I got the impression that (unlike the Treasury) he was not involved much in the detail of Pensions policy. Or at least in its implementation)

Two things are in play here. First the idea of collective Cabinet responsibility. The Cabinet does not seem like the Board of Shell or any other big Corporation which has a real (and legal) collective responsivity for steering the business. Policy seems to be dominated first by the Treasury and second by a very few key players. Oddly the Prime Minister (unlike either of his two most recent predecessors) seems quite remote from decision-making. (He may not be, it’s just how it seems to this onlooker. He’s quite Presidential and seems above the fray and the nitty-gritty. It is obvious that he never served time as a Minister or Shadow Minister).

The second thing in play is personal ambition tied for the moment to the EU referendum – rather more, I think, than the “indirect link” suggested by Paul Goodman. IDS allied himself emphatically and noisily with Gove and Johnson on Europe and took on the Prime Minister in a full-frontal way. These three and Dominic Raab, Chris Grayling and Priti Patel have gambled their political futures on this one issue. But then so have Cameron and Osborne. This is not a surrogate fight it’s hard and bitter and bloody. Cameron was reported to be “furious” with Boris Johnson – is he likely to have been any less so with the others? The referendum is of the Conservatives making and it isn’t going well! A divided Party, a divided Cabinet and a population which (a few obsessives like me on both sides apart) seems indifferent to the whole thing. That on June 23rd we will be deciding not just Britain’s future but that of the current Government and Prime Minister and Chancellor is one of the most bizarre things to happen in my lifetime. What a can of worms David Cameron opened when he so foolishly agreed to a referendum for one reason only - to try and heal the open wounds in his Party.


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