Thursday, 13 October 2011

Fox fiasco, NHS bill chaos. Move Maude.

David Cameron's two big crises of the moment, the Liam Fox/Walter Mitty saga and the slow death of Andrew Lansley's pointless NHS legislation owe a lot to another member of his cabinet and a silly self-destructive piece of gesturist posturing. Francis Maude's obesessive opposition to political advisers in government has led Fox to use unorthodox methods to maintain the advice of his Alanticist soulmate Adam Werritty, while Lansley's ludicrous bill would never have seen the light of day had Cameron enjoyed half-decent political back-up in No 10 while it was being dreamt up.

I hold no brief for the increasingly bizarre Werritty or his politics, and some of the meetings that he set up would not have been appropriate for any political adviser. But a Secretary of State is entitled to have political advice that reflects his political position as a counterweight to the bureaucratic certainties that he will receive from his civil servants. The civil service is fine at offering what it sees as the tenable options on any issue, but it can benefit from radical challenge from political advisers as well as ministers. And the idea that ministers should not have sufficient political back-up to fulfil a democratic mandate is pretty undemocratic. I have no idea whether there is more to Werritty than a go-for for Fox: but if that is all that he is, he should have been able to work for Fox in an official capacity, albeit with fewer luxury hotel visits and first class flights. Had he done so, his role would have been properly defined.

Which brings me to Lansley's bill that is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves thanks to a re-energised David Owen and a canny offer from Andy Burnham, who has made a flying start back at Health by offering to back GP commissioning if the bill is dropped. As Camilla Cavendish points out in an excellent piece (£) in the Times this morning, the bill makes no difference to patients, it will be blamed for the next NHS crisis [which I believe will follow Lansley's equally ludicrous abandonment of targets] and it doesn't actually require primary legislation. Indeed it may even set back the private and voluntary provision already introduced as a result of Alan Milburn's reforms. But all of this was entirely predictable, and would have been seen by a half-competent, politically aware NHS adviser in No 10. Cameron lacked such a figure because the No 10 policy unit was virtually non-existent thanks to the strictures of Maude. Even today, it is filled with civil servants rather than politically astute figures, for the same reason.

Of course, Francis Maude thought he was being terribly clever when he announced a reduction in the number of Whitehall political advisers. And, funnily enough, the civil servants in the Cabinet Office cheered him on, as did the newspapers. It allowed a nice dig at Labour too. All of which would have been exchanged for a day's bad headlines had the coalition increased their number. Some ministers have created policy adviser posts for political appointees (who are subject to the strictures of civil servants on political activity) to get round the rules. But they shouldn't have to. The Prime Minister should have a strong cadre of able well-informed political advisers, and individual cabinet ministers should be able to assemble small teams of people they can trust politically to act in the interests of their democratic mandate.

So, if and when Liam Fox goes, and once Cameron finally gets rid of the disaster that is Andrew Lansley [and it gives me no pleasure to note that this blog told you so long before the election], he should also move Maude. And do a U-turn on political advice.

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