Reviews: Power Trip & Blunders of our Governments

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 11 November 2013 in Culture
Keith Simpson, Conservative MP for Broadland and PPS to the foreign secretary, reviews the life and crimes of Damian McBride and the other assorted mistakes made by governments past

Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin by Damian McBride  

Biteback Publishing, £20

You might be forgiven for thinking that the depths in spinning had been reached in the roles of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell for the Labour Party and then for the Blair and Brown governments. But no. Damian McBride, who loyally and doggedly served chancellor and then PM Gordon Brown went further until an attempt to smear senior Tories and their wives was exposed.

The giveaway is the nicknames he was known by – “Mad Dog” and “McPoison”.  The more titillating parts of his memoir and those most damaging to senior Labour politicians have been serialised in a tabloid, but these extracts make up only about 15% of what is a very readable, and at times thoughtful, book. McBride is no fool, and when sober is clever and well read, but from his youth, drink and a desire to inflict physical pain and damage on anyone considered an opponent – other sportsmen, fellow drinkers down the pub, journalists, civil servants, politicians – got the better of him.

Reading Power Trip, one is both fascinated and appalled by McBride’s brutal philosophy, self-deception and pride in twisting the truth. What drives him from the first time he is asked to do some work for Brown is his love and admiration for this most unlovable of politicians.  McBride regards him as the greatest person he has ever known and would do anything to advance his hero’s cause and protect him from threats, many of them imaginary. There is little judgement or proportionality, and many journalists who criticise McBride now were happy to drink with him and take his spin when he was Brown’s henchman.

The former spin doctor has some interesting points to make about recruitment to the civil service, the way the budget was prepared and delivered in the Brown Treasury, and the relationship between Brown and the two Eds, Balls and Miliband: less ‘father and sons’, more ‘tutor and students’. How much of what he reveals and comments on is in anyway connected to the truth is difficult to judge.

Although McBride is a contemporary political spinner and extreme example, as Andrew Blick and George Jones showed in At Power’s Elbow, as aides to the prime minister, from Robert Walpole to David Cameron, the spin doctors’ profession is probably the second oldest in history.


The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe  

One World, £25

This is a very apposite book and should be read by ministers, shadow ministers, parliamentarians and civil servants, but I doubt whether more than a few will have the inclination or time to do so. King and Crewe are distinguished political scientists whose aim in writing this book was not just to produce a “laundry list” of recent government project errors, but to analyse why they happened, commonality of the blunders and what, if anything, can be done to prevent or ameliorate them. 

Examples are drawn from recent history, from the Poll Tax down to a raft of decisions by the coalition government. While I was reading it during the Conservative Parliamentary awayday, a very senior cabinet minister picked it up, flicked through it, and dismissed it, saying it exaggerated errors and didn’t give credit for the achievements and quality of our governmental decision-making compared with that of many foreign ones. A mistaken view.

Taking the dictionary definition, blunder is “a gross mistake; an error due to stupidity and carelessness”, and the authors are at pains to point out the distinction between blunders that are primarily behavioural or human in character and those that are more institutional, systemic or cultural.

Initially, they list major government successes, including the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, the 1967 Road Safety Act, 1971’s Decimalisation, the 1980 Housing Act, the 1982 Employment Act, the 1984 Trade Union Act, the 1988 MMR vaccination, the Citizen’s Charter, 1999’s Minimum Wage, the 2006 Smoking Ban in Health Act and the 2012 London Olympics. The reasons for success, they posit, were consultation, clarity, usually widespread public support and strong ministerial leadership.

They then go on to contrast these glory moments with post-war failures, such as the Groundnut Scheme, Suez, Concorde, the decision in 1964 not to devalue the pound, 1969’s failure of industrial relations in the white paper ‘In Place of Strife’ and the 1971 Industrial Relations Act.

But at the core of the book is a series of major government failures which damaged the reputation of ministers and civil servants and wasted billions of pounds, and King and Crewe analyse each failure – what was the thinking behind the Child Support Agency or the Millennium Dome? – and consider its causes.

These range from a cultural disconnect between political servants at all levels and the public, a failure to set up proper pilot schemes and talk to those tasked with implementation, group-think, pre-judgements and unquestioned assumptions. And the conclusion is that the divorce between policy-making and implementation was the key overriding factor.

The authors also emphasise that a PM’s inability to control everything, and their desire for instant projects to feed the media’s insatiable appetite, is a receipt for disaster. This is aligned with an assessment that the Treasury is more feared than esteemed, and ministers are too busy to look beyond their brief and cabinet sub-committees, while ad hoc groups lack expertise and strategic vision.

The familiar criticisms of Whitehall are also aired – that ministerial reshuffles are too frequent and tenure too short, compared, for example, with Germany’s political system. A similar pattern can be discerned with civil servants. Parliament comes in for censure where it failed to take legislative scrutiny seriously and hold the government to account. As for select committees, these cannot examine the formulation of policy.

So, what is their answer? It is difficult, they conclude, to resolve the pivotal questions of party politics and the role of personality. At the centre, the authors suggest a strengthening of the prime minister’s Policy Unit with a remit to ask difficult questions. Government could use parliamentary committees to look at proposals and identify problems in advance – pre-legislative scrutiny in practice doesn’t match its current remit, and there is a need to bring back ‘in-house’ a lot of work that was traditionally done by civil servants but has been outsourced, with an unhealthy relationship between the private sector and consultants.

The post-script chapter doesn’t let off the coalition government, which is epitomised by 2012’s buzzword “omnishambles”. To a certain extent, what King and Crewe describe isn’t original – successive reports by the PAC and NAO have provided the evidence, and recently Richard Bacon MP and Christopher Hope wrote a similar book, entitled Conundrum.

Sadly, lessons are rarely learnt and there is almost no collective memory in Whitehall, although for the coalition it could be said that Ken Clarke, with his wide ministerial career and experience and robust personality, is the next best thing.

Tags: Issue 63

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