Bagehot’s column this week is excellent. Discussing David Cameron’s decision to hire Andy Coulson, he pulls no punches and zeroes in on a question of surprising national importance:
Cavalier or cynical? For those who would fathom the sloppy and impulsive way Mr Cameron sometimes runs his affairs, it is a familiar question. Yet it often comes to the same thing. In his misfiring Europe policy, his underpowered staff and his periodic bungling of party management, the prime minister is so wilfully slapdash as to suggest a lack of regard for his own high office.
“Wilfully slapdash” is an extraordinarily telling charge. It is one that policy wonks would have sympathised with during months of frustration dealing with Number 10. One could even, somewhat strenuously, equate it with a specific, right wing ideology. Earnest lefty types (those that Dillow accuses of being prey to managerialism) believe that careful policy design by pointy-heads in the centre can really make a difference. So they do things like create a Strategy Unit, the loss of which Jill Rutter mourns here. On the other hand, rightwingers think it all a load of baloney, and any bright chap can be quick thinking enough to busk up the right sort of policy if forced to think on the spot. Civil servants who warn about obstacles are probably doing so because of surly, negative attitude not through insight – the behaviour of “enemies of enterprise”.
I suspect being slapdash is more about the PM’s style than anything specifically Tory. Plenty of other Tories are notoriously careful and controlling in their approach (Theresa May and Philip Hammond being obvious examples) and would never go about things in the same way as Cameron. There were numerous examples picked up by the press in recent years – a good example being the hasty “lowest price guaranteed” announcement on energy bills in 2012. You could also cite this non-fact about our IP laws (hat tip to Andrew Orlowski), which badly unsettled a generally useful review into Intellectual Property.
There will be many more. For me, experience of this slapdash approach came in the Beecroft Report and its aftermath. One day I will write a longer account of this farce. For now it should be clear that Rick’s collection of evidence and context contains far more in the way of careful preparation than anything to be found in Number 10 during this dire episode.
That Number 10 doesn’t contain employment law experts should come as no surprise. That they really didn’t want to hear any experts, despite trying to overturn the basis on which the £800bn per year labour market operated, was a much more damaging discovey. The PM himself had very little to do with all this, most of the time; the public accounts make it clear that it was really the agenda of one or two advisers. Someone or other in Number 10 felt that it was quite fine to try to push an employment law agenda on the basis of “I met a man”.
Wilfully slapdash is actually quite a kind way of describing it.