But leaving aside those papers it is not hard to find examples of what looks remarkably like Blairite impotence.,p> The biggest is over ‘delivery’ itself. Ministers can speechify and they can spend. They can summon their permanent secretaries and set all kinds of targets (and they do). But do they really control what individual teachers, doctors or local officials do, let alone how the public perceives their efforts?
And now it is no longer clear that summoning civil servants works.
Sir Andrew Turnbull, the incoming cabinet secretary – he takes over from Sir Richard Wilson in September – has just radically recast the way the ‘centre’ works. Effectively he is saying – and got Blair to agree – that officialdom answers to him and he answers to the PM. On the way, the various units created by Blair in and around Downing Street are being wound up or redone. And in addition Turnbull is bringing in a number of his own people to give him personal control of the delivery agenda.
Turnbull, of course, has no more control over ultimate delivery of public services than the prime minister, but his assertion of mandarin muscle is fascinating. The civil service, we were told, was beaten and cowed.
Instead, it turns out to be fit and self confident, prepared to tell ministers where to get off.
It could be that, astute sniffers of the political wind as they are, top civil servants think the government is at a low ebb and have seized the moment to reinsert themselves into the power loops. Or it could be that the Blair government is past its prime, that it’s all downhill from now on. It is therefore an appropriate time to put the permanent government of country back where it belongs, with the press and the bureaucracy.
- David Walker writes for The Guardian.