PracticePeople In PracticeTthe corridors of power …

Tthe corridors of power ...

There are two theories on why the first weeks of Tony Blair's second term have been preoccupied with 'privatisation', leading to a high profile evening visit to Downing Street by union barons for a soothing dinner.

One says the prime minister has been clever. Having roused a storm of indignation and fear among opponents of change in public services, he can now, appearing to make statesmanlike concessions, secure changes in working practice in schools and hospitals with greater ease.

The other theory says cock up. During the run up to the election, Number 10 lost control. Loose talk about replacing public with private providers got amplified into a broadside attack on the public service ethos. As it turns out the government has few concrete proposals to put and certainly has nothing to offer as radical as the market principles imported into health by Kenneth Clarke.

It’s probably more the latter than the former. Look at the delay in working out the new architecture at the Cabinet Office, to accommodate the ‘progress chaser’ who is being appointed to ensure promises are delivered. Civil servants talk openly of their confusion at who is responsible for what.

Yet old hands at the game note how, despite the surface noise, the administrative tarmac is the same as always. Just before the election a new permanent secretary moved into trade and industry in the shape of Robin Young – a consummate player of the Whitehall game, the kind of wheeler-dealer ministers like to have around. He is no ‘manager’ in the sense of having experience of running administrative empires but will serve Patricia Hewitt.

For all the talk about delivery, Labour ministers have shown no aptitude for radical change in the way Whitehall works. Bringing people in from the private sector, Tony Blair’s panacea, is a soft option. In the highly-charged atmosphere of Whitehall and Westminster most private sector executives would be eaten alive.

  • David Walker writes for the Guardian.

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