Jacqui Smith: It is the job of a minister to be political - but not like Chris Grayling

Written by Jacqui Smith on 15 December 2016 in Opinion

There can be no justification for putting party politics above the interests of the public.


Chris Grayling recently faced criticism and challenge as it emerged that he’d advised then London mayor Boris Johnson in 2013 not to put suburban out of London rail services into the hands of Transport for London. ‘I would like to keep rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour mayor’ he wrote to Johnson in 2013. Last week, as Transport Secretary, he scrapped the plan for a transfer to TFL which had previously had cross party support.

His letter (presumably leaked from the filing cabinets of City Hall) has focused attention on his motives. Evidence led rational decision making or a political stitch up? Is this just a case of a politician being criticised for being a politician or has he overstepped the mark?

In my experience, one of the frustrations of many Ministers is that their ministerial colleagues aren’t political enough. I have certainly sat in Cabinet sub-committee meetings where Ministers read out the briefs prepared for them by their departments with no regard for the broader political objectives of the government. And in giving speeches, Ministers can fall into the ‘speak your brief’ format adding little political colour or opinion. Given the time pressures faced by Ministers doing several speeches a week on topics they have little knowledge of, it is not surprising that they sometimes resort to bland speeches prepared by officials, but it’s a pretty unsatisfactory experience for speech maker and audience alike.

It is the job of a Minister to be political. There are thousands of civil servants who can provide the technical details about a policy. The Minister must provide the political direction for this work. In speaking publicly she is trying not just to inform, but also to persuade and convince. In contributing to cross government decision making, she should be applying the political tests. How does this deliver our political objectives and values? Who gains and who loses? How will we explain this to voters?

If ministers aren’t setting the political context for their decisions and the government, no one else is going to do it. I have no sympathy with the arguments that try to take politics out of politics. ‘The NHS shouldn’t be a political football’ or ‘immigration could be controlled by an independent body’. There will be a few long term issues such as pensions or the funding of social care where a cross party consensus will need to be reached. For other issues, taking elected politicians out of decision making doesn’t mean that decisions will be taken by independent, evidence led, impartial forces. It puts the power into the hands of the powerful and vested interests.

This isn’t the first time that this government has been accused of putting party advantage over the country’s interests. In February, Labour MPs protested that a £300m fund for local government was ‘a political bung’ to prevent Tories rebelling against the local government settlement. 83% of the money went to Tory led councils with only 5% going to Labour councils. Ministers have always run an eye over the distribution and impacts of government spending to check where the winners and losers are and have even been known to ensure that the areas which their party represents get a fair share, but the distribution of this £300m seems a bit skewed to say the least.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if Tory ministers gave their MPs more forewarning and briefing of big announcements or were more likely to visit their constituencies. To be fair, this is partly because opposition MPs are less keen on government Ministers visiting their patch. However it is also the case that it is somehow easier to find a time in a busy diary for a political friend or colleague than an opponent. This should also stop short of party political interfering in the right decisions.

During my time as an MP, there was a proposal for the closure of ten schools in my constituency due to falling numbers of children. The Labour education minister reviewing the decision went out of his way to visit and listen to my angry constituents, but he didn’t overrule a decision which was obviously right even if politically painful for me and my marginal seat.

My charge against Chris Grayling is not that he was being political or even that he was using a back door party political route to make his views heard, but that in taking the decision as a Minister he appears to be putting party politics above the interests of the travelling public. He would have been justified to argue that Tory party policy favoured private provision in rail travel and that they had a mandate from the electorate to resist TFL. Wrong, but justified! He was out of order in arguing the case in 2013 on the basis of preventing a democratically elected future mayor from having a say over rail travel simply because he was from a different party.

Making decisions based on a political case or set of values is a worthy and important process even if the public are sceptical about it. Ministers must be careful not to bring their political role into further disrepute by obviously abusing it for party interest rather than public good.



Jacqui Smith was home secretary from 2007 to 2009. She is now chair of the public affairs practice at Westbourne Communications.


Picture by: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images



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