Will Hutton on Prime Ministerial power and public administration

In a great article in today’s Oberserver, Will Hutton reviews the origins of the current political crisis in the UK in the constitutional set-up which confers monarchical powers on Prime Ministers, something I have written about frequently here and in the pages of Public Finance – see for example this one…

I quote a key passage below, but it is worth reading the whole article.

From: The Observer, 7 June 2009

“The deformation reaches into the heart of the state; it is one of the reasons why the public sector’s record on productivity and innovation is so indifferent. A classic example is the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). Brown created this department out of the old Department of Education & DTI especially for Ed Balls in 2007, a bauble for a favoured courtier. However, Balls insisted he deserved better and was rewarded with the new Department for Children, Schools and Families. Now, to compensate him for not becoming chancellor, which he thought was his right until James Purnell’s resignation, and Peter Mandelson for not becoming foreign secretary, after 20 months DIUS is being broken up and the constituent parts given back to their old departments.

Departments of state and, with them, great swaths of public spending, are treated as political spoils. With Geoff Hoon’s resignation as transport secretary, this department alone will have had four secretaries of state in three years. It’s a similar story in defence, with environment and energy only marginally less hard hit; these are all departments with long-term planning horizons, but whose political leaders are birds of passage. What chance is there of difficult decisions being taken? Systematic policy developed? Of careful attention invested in how effectively and efficiently cash is spent?

Prime ministers and opposition leaders talk about eliminating waste in government. What they never grasp is that the inefficiency of so much public spending is integrally bound up with Britain’s constitutional settlement. Brown, like Cameron, shores up his position through patronage and so prevents any significant politician from building an independent power base. The culture of the reshuffle grows out of the capacity continually to create new political spoils as political exigency dictates, a patronage that comes from borrowed monarchical discretion. We watched Brown at it again on Friday.”

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