The bureaucratic imperative rules, or maybe just reigns

The point’s been well made, notably by Heidi Alexander MP, that shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner’s arguments against the EEA are even stronger arguments for just staying in the damn EU already. But I would like to draw attention to another aspect of his piece:

As a transitional phase, a customs union agreement might be thought to have some merit. However, as an end point it is deeply unattractive. It would preclude us from making our own independent trade agreements with our five largest export markets outside the EU (the US, China, Japan, Australia and the Gulf states).

Why is Gardiner going on like this? The simple answer is that he is shadow trade secretary. As such he is structurally, ineluctably in favour of trade secretaries. Whatever confused vision he is offering here, it will certainly involve extensive trade negotiations with various powers. In the event of a Labour government, these negotiations would be the responsibility of Barry Gardiner, and were they successful, their success would redound to his credit. Just as the disgraced Liam Fox is structurally in favour of strange globe-trotting trade schemes, so is his shadow. Maybe this is why the Department for International Trade even exists. The bureaucratic imperative rules.

Or perhaps the bureaucratic imperative only reigns? This FT story has had a lot of play for its description of a thoroughly dysfunctional government, which is well worth reading. But I was interested by this graf:

Some civil servants say Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, should have done more to challenge the secretive and tightly held decision-making structure. “Jeremy Heywood has achieved a lot but he placed the value of getting into the room with the PM above the need to deliver tough messages,” said one senior Whitehall figure. “If the cabinet secretary doesn’t turn and fight, then the rest of the civil service won’t either.”

The point that comes to mind is that David Cameron’s government was the first for a long time to go after the core civil service as an enemy. A key early doors initiative was the whole project of breaking up the role of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service – remember all the complaining about Gus “GO’D” O’Donnell and briefing that Heywood was a secret socialist? – in order to diminish the power of the top civil service. The new post of Civil Service Chief Executive was created, pretty much deliberately as a rival pole of power, more in the gift of the prime minister. The Cabinet Secretaryship was split up into the No.10 Downing Street Permanent Secretary and the Head of the Service.

This project was a bust. The CEO job – aka “let’s give it to Branson or someone” – never amounted to much. Heywood emerged as the key civil service figure largely because the No.10 permanent secretary by definition had permanent access to the prime minister, and eventually the bureaucratic papacy re-emerged around him. But it’s worth remembering that the top civil service spent the post-2010 period frantically defending the institution itself against the prime minister. The obvious counterpoint is that they do that all the time.

Looking at the Cameron-May years, though, does anyone honestly think the government is getting too much professional advice? OK, right. Also, does anyone begin to think 2016 wasn’t as much of a caesura as it looked? And if Heywood is avoiding conflict with the prime minister, can anyone perhaps see why?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.