Relationships matter for getting stuff done in government - as some Tories will soon find out

Written by Jacqui Smith on 2 March 2016 in Opinion

View from a former minister: Michael Gove may struggle to make progress on prison reforms if he cannot depend on informal contact with David Cameron and George Osborne.

Whether you’re working with government or in government, relationships matter and when they break down, there will be consequences.  

Recent days have seen a flurry of briefing about the tensions between ministers on different sides of the EU debate. Shock horror, Philip Hammond thinks Bill Cash is a shit and Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s family members have regaled us with their torment at having to publicly disagree with people who shared a classroom with them or attended their weddings.  

Does it matter if ministers don’t get on? There is a popular view of politicians as scheming and unreliable colleagues hiding their hatred of each other temporarily to achieve personal advancement but incapable of limiting their plotting for long. Like a Shakespearean history play with added red boxes and text messages. 

In my experience, this is far from the truth. In fact, we should probably be more worried about the personal closeness of many of our political elite – friends from university, student politics or even school if you went to the ‘right’ one; moving in the same social circles.  Long days and nights grafting to get out of opposition and into government also builds strong personal relationships.  

Of course, there will be personal and political fissures along the way - Tony Blair’s first cabinet contained two ministers, one of whom had married the other’s former wife. For some, the decision to go to war in Iraq meant they became estranged from former colleagues who remained in government. 

The biggest divide, of course, was between the Blairites and the Brownites. Even in denying that you belonged to one or other camp, you accepted the premise of the divide. Listening in on a call in the early 2000s where my Blairite cabinet boss told the then chief secretary to the Treasury that he couldn’t give a ‘flying f**k’ what the chancellor thought of his reform proposals brought home to me that all was not harmony in the New Labour mission.  

However, there was at least a publicly united front.  Cabinet collective responsibility meant that Ministers did not appear in public disagreeing.

The business of government requires hundreds of decisions where Ministers need to negotiate their different perspectives and to find an accommodation between the interests of their portfolios. 

There is a well-developed government architecture to facilitate this. Cabinet committees and their Cabinet Office secretariats enable ministers to formally discuss and agree on any issues with cross government implications (which is practically any decision you can imagine).  A process of ‘write rounds’ ensures formal buy-in to all government decisions. Officials negotiate the finer details of cross departmental decisions in pursuance of their ministers’ overall objectives.  

The existence of these formal structures was vital in enabling the early years of the post 2010 coalition government to achieve anything. Having negotiated the coalition agreement, a series of more formal processes were necessary from the Quad downwards to ensure collective buy in to policy decisions. 

Of course, constructive and even warm(ish) relationships did develop between some ministers and special advisers, but these didn’t have the depth of trust and friendship that exists in political allies. The evidence of this was the way the government effectively ground to a halt in delivering new policy when the coalition agreement had been delivered.  There was no basis formally – or of common ties – to negotiate a new agreement so the last years of the government delivered little.

Whilst formal structures underpin the business of government, real political decision making also requires the myriad informal contacts that ministers make with each other – and friendship and trust are vital. 

I remember negotiating immigration tightening reforms across government when ministers who I know took a more ‘liberal’ approach to immigration than the Home Office disagreed. They nevertheless gave me their support because as one said ‘it’s you asking, Jacqui’.  I sorted out a big problem between my department and another during a phonecall I took with a friend (and fellow cabinet minister) as I watched my son play rugby on a Sunday morning.  I took his call and I trusted his judgement.

So relationships do matter for getting stuff done in government – and trust, once lost, is difficult to replace. I’d be surprised if Michael Gove makes the progress he (and many others) would want him to make in prison reform now that he will find it harder to depend on informal contact with the prime minister and chancellor. 

Away from the big issues of government, a whole tranche of more junior ministers negotiating the day to day business of governing will think twice before picking up the phone or grabbing a colleague in the division lobbies due to publicly expressed differences over Europe.

Formal government structures will still exist and operate, but the informal ‘oiling’ of the gears will be more difficult.  At the worst, the engine of government risks seizing up. Whatever the result in June, that will be difficult for this government to get back – and UK government will be the weaker for it.  




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