LORD HOWARD: The changes PM has to make to turn disaster into triumph

Forget the pantomime – here are the vital changes Boris Johnson has to make to turn disaster into triumph, writes ex-Tory leader LORD HOWARD

No one could pretend that the events in Downing Street over the past few days have presented an edifying spectacle. 

They have laid bare the strains and stresses that have bedevilled the heart of government, and have undoubtedly contributed to the missteps that have characterised its recent performance.

It is difficult to imagine similar scenes having occurred during Margaret Thatcher’s time or, come to that, any of her other Conservative successors. 

The nearest that I can remember is the poisonous atmosphere that permeated Tony Blair’s time in office and which led to the acrimonious departure of Alastair Campbell in not entirely dissimilar circumstances.

No one could pretend that the events in Downing Street over the past few days have presented an edifying spectacle

Reams of newsprint have been spent on the causes of the departure of Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings, on the battles for the Prime Minister’s ear and on what it says about where power lies.

I will not add to that speculation. So far as I know, I have never met Lee Cain and, although I did meet Dominic Cummings a few times in the dim and distant past, I can’t claim to know him. He is clearly a man of considerable ability but also a very divisive figure.

He never sought to hide his contempt for MPs, so it is not surprising that many have welcomed his departure with enthusiasm. And his trip to Barnard Castle certainly didn’t help the Government in its efforts to persuade people to comply with the Covid restrictions.

But the important thing now is what this means for the future.

Reams of newsprint have been spent on the causes of the departure of Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings, on the battles for the Prime Minister’s ear and on what it says about where power lies

Boris Johnson faces challenges on a scale that dwarfs any encountered by the Government in which I was privileged to serve so many years ago.

We still don’t know, just six weeks from the end of the year, whether Britain will depart from the EU with or without a deal.

I voted for Brexit and I do not believe that a No Deal Brexit would be a disaster. But there is no doubt that it would be better to leave with a deal, if we can get one on reasonable terms.

This alone would tax the ability and resilience of any Prime Minister. But in addition to this, Boris Johnson has to deal with the many challenges posed by the pandemic, an unprecedented threat to our lives and livelihoods.

Of course, the Government’s response has been met with strong criticism in many quarters.

For my part, I have always been prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. When this whole chapter is looked at with the benefit of hindsight, there will inevitably be things which could have been done better.

But governments don’t have access to hindsight, and the sheer difficulty of weighing the balance between saving lives, protecting the economy and minimising the consequences for the way in which we live, presents with it what I regard as the most formidable peacetime challenge ever faced by a British Government.

Will the departure of Cummings and Cain help or hinder the Prime Minister’s ability to overcome this challenge? That is the only question which matters.

It seems to me that there are three changes which would help.

First, it is clearly essential that relations improve between the centre of government and the Conservative parliamentary party. It is extraordinary that less than a year after winning a resounding majority in December’s Election, there have been so many rebellions on the Conservative benches.

It cannot have helped that those closest to the Prime Minister have had so little regard for the MPs on whose support he ultimately depends. There is a huge amount of talent in the parliamentary party. It should be listened to.

Second, the traditional role of the Cabinet needs to be revived. The decline in Cabinet government, for so long the cornerstone of our system, predates Boris Johnson.

I was privileged to serve in the Cabinets of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Back then, the Cabinet was the traditional decision- making body, which it had been for decades.

That changed under Tony Blair, who preferred what became known as a sofa-style approach to government in which decisions were made by a small group of people in Downing Street and, effectively, just rubber-stamped by the Cabinet.

When David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, he had to deal with the constraints of coalition with the Lib Dems, making it very difficult – if not impossible – to revert to a traditional style of Cabinet government.

So decisions were made by the Quad, consisting of Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, and, again, effectively rubber-stamped by Cabinet. By the time a Conservative government took office in 2015, traditional Cabinet government had become a dim and distant memory.

It is now more than 20 years since it last held sway. It has certainly been noticeable by its absence under the current Prime Minister.

Indeed, such has been the behaviour of some of his closest advisers that Cabinet Ministers have sometimes resembled little more than mouthpieces communicating the messages crafted and drafted by those very advisers.

We are likely to get much better decision-making if, notwithstanding its long absence, we can revert to a system in which Cabinet Ministers run their departments in accordance with policies approved by the Cabinet. Sometimes, the old ways really are the best.

This brings me to my third suggestion. The confrontational attitude adopted by Messrs Cummings and Cain was not limited to their treatment of MPs. They also had the Civil Service in their sights.

I don’t doubt that there is room for improvement in the performance of Whitehall.

Boris Johnson has unique political talents. He is capable of becoming a truly great Prime Minister. But the campaigning phase is over. Lord Howard is pictured above with the now-PM

There always is, and I certainly had many run-ins with officials during my time in government.

But what that experience taught me was that if a Minister made it clear what he or she wanted in terms of policy, and made it clear that they were determined to see it through, the Civil Service would do their best to make a success of it.

It always made sense to listen to civil servants’ objections. Sometimes they were right! But if a Minister, having listened to those objections, made it clear that he or she was not persuaded, they would ultimately get their way.

As the old adage goes: ‘Advisers advise. Ministers decide.’ Denigration of the Civil Service is not the answer. It certainly doesn’t help.

Boris Johnson has unique political talents. He is capable of becoming a truly great Prime Minister. But the campaigning phase is over.

As Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, once memorably said: ‘You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.’ As the Prime Minister knows better than most, there is much to be said for prose.

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