Boris Johnson's Toxic Inheritance From Margaret Thatcher

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Pundits are rightly accused of exercising the wisdom of hindsight, but some political disasters really are inevitable and have been loudly predicted before the event.

The U.K. government’s most recent fiasco, over the grading of state examination results for 18-year-old school students, was one such event. It was an accident waiting to happen and everyone seemed to know it, except Boris Johnson’s ministers and the regulator in charge.

There’s a deeper lesson here for the ruling Conservative Party: If it wants to avoid being blamed for these regular bureaucratic crises — or, even better, if it wants more competent management of public services — it must give up its addiction to a highly centralized state, where the buck can only stop with the politician in charge.

Johnson says he wants his to be a transforming administration. For the country’s sake, one can only hope that he means it. The Conservatives have to learn the lesson that comes hardest to British politicians of all stripes by decentralizing powers far beyond the cloistered world of Whitehall, where civil servants and politicians exist cheek by jowl and compound each others’ policy mistakes. 

The exam-grade debacle shows the system’s inadequacies. Back in early July, a House of Commons committee report, chaired by a feisty Tory MP, warned that the education regulator, Ofqual, was heading for trouble after the latter ingeniously decided to give an algorithm the job of deciding A-level exam grades. The report said the algorithm would favor the kids of rich parents taught in small classes in private schools. Bright children in big state schools would suffer. In August this prediction was amply fulfilled. Ofqual and the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had sat on their hands and screwed up.

Williamson duly stuck the blame on Ofqual. In his self-serving view, he wasn’t politically accountable. Ministers set the policy, goes the theory, civil servants are responsible for implementation — and errors. 

Yet it’s the politician’s job to intervene when emergencies loom. There’s no such thing as “arms length” in a crisis affecting anxious 18-year-olds with university offers to fill and their even more worried parents. Williamson and his ministry failed to act, even though he had the power to intervene. Eventually, he was forced to fall back on teacher estimates for the grades, such was the outcry.  

The education secretary has form: He botched the reopening of schools in the summer term. Instead of taking headteachers into his confidence and providing reassurance about the health of teachers as well as children, he ran into the brick wall of militant trade unions. As a skilful political intriguer and Johnson supporter, he’s unlikely to be sacked. The prime minister and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, hate giving their enemies a scalp.

Conservative politicians ever since Margaret Thatcher have tried to shuffle off their responsibilities for state services in this way. Her government led the world in privatizing national industries, but never got to grips with the reform of public services.

The Iron Lady’s nemesis was the long dead Labour politician who set up Britain’s National Health Service and represented the spirit of the post-war welfare state, Aneurin Bevan. This fiery socialist famously announced that “the sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar” in his native Wales should reverberate around the Palace of Westminster. Seventy years on, ministerial accountability for “dropped bedpans” — or dropped exam grades for promising working class kids — still exists despite the best efforts of Thatcher’s own ideological bedfellows to avoid it.

Her solution was to invent arms-length bodies to run public institutions, often led by a businessman who allegedly “knew about the real world.” It wasn’t a bad idea in principle, and it made for an easier life for her ministers: At last there was someone else to blame when Mrs Smith’s hernia operation was postponed.

But, in practice, lines of responsibility will always be blurred and the political opposition, the press and the public will always aim their brickbats at ministers when things go wrong. Some corporate bosses are also hopeless at making the trade-offs and compromises involved in providing a cash-limited, highly politicized public service. Cummings believes this system is bust, though he has yet to improve upon it.

Matthew Hancock, the health secretary, has taken drastic measures to discipline one underperforming state institution, Public Health England, the body responsible for looking after Brits’ wellbeing. It unwisely spurned private-sector offers to help with testing for the Covid virus at the height of the crisis and will now be rolled into a super-agency also responsible for test and tracing, and biosecurity.

It’s far from certain that this change will bring much improvement. The new agency will be placed in the hands of a telecoms executive, Dido Harding, who has no public health experience. In effect, it will be brought very close to the NHS and managed by Hancock. It’s another example of central government creep.

Other countries with federal systems devolve powers to local authorities, so avoiding an overreliance on single institutions. That’s one long-term answer to the British disease of poor, unaccountable state services, but it also means changing the centralizing course adopted by governments of all parties for the last 80 years.

Reinventing government is an arduous and thankless task. In theory, this government has the majority to do it, but until then the buck must stop with ministers. As Thatcher once said, “There is no alternative.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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