Issue 300: 2021 11 11: Thinking Through

11 November 2021

Thinking Through

The lesson from Paterson.

By John Watson

“Entitled”, “Corrupt”, “Applying different rules to their friends”; these are some of the ways the Government’s conduct ín the Owen Paterson affair has been described. But appropriate as the epithets may be, they do not deal with the central question: “How come the Government behaved so stupidly?”

There is no need to enlarge on the furore which the decision to overrule the Standards Committee gave rise. We have read all about it in the press. What is more it was entirely predictable. How could No 10 have thought that there wouldn’t be a huge row with damage sustained by the Conservative Party and by the political establishment as a whole? A minute’s thought should have made that obvious. So why did they decide to press ahead to disaster rather than abandoning Paterson to the mercies or otherwise of the agreed parliamentary process? Was he important to the Government? No. Did they need to avoid an undesirable by-election? No, they have an unassailable majority and Paterson’s local popularity would probably have meant that there would have been no successful recall petition. Would leaving him to the process have damaged their reputation? Not really, and certainly not compared to the action which they in fact took. How then, on any balance of advantage, did they come to the conclusion that they were making the correct call? The only possible answer to that is that they didn’t come to a considered conclusion at all.

Let us imagine ourselves in the Prime Minister’s office in the role of the fly on the wall and consider the possible ways in which he could have made the decision.

First, it might have been a matter of principle: “Tory MPs are above the law and it is worth sustaining political damage to make that point”; well, it could have been that if there is a bigger scandal on the way to which this is a mere hors d’oeuvre, but really not otherwise. Putting principle above popularity is more Maggie than Boris, not that the lady herself would have taken such a foolish line.

All right then; let us try again. What about “Paterson worked hard for the Tories; his reputation is worth a few opinion poll points”. No, hardly that either. The Government is far too keen on its ratings; so, rational decisions being exhausted, the process must have been a more casual one. Try “Eh, Paterson, the man whose wife killed herself? Enquiry took far too long. Poor fellow. Surely we can change those rules. Now about COP 26/ the North/ the Covid plan B”. And that is how it must have been, a thoughtless stupid moment of compassion without any regard to process or even advantage.

Now I do not want to suggest that the fact that the decision was to some extent driven by compassion for a colleague mitigates Mr Johnson’s behaviour in the least. He holds an important public office and has duties in relation to how he exercises his power. It is not right to dispense with legal penalties out of sympathy with anyone, be they political friend or political foe, and that is the case whether the dispensing depends on an unassailable parliamentary majority or a Royal discretion such as that exercised by the Stuarts. But, the decision itself being condemned, let us go further and look at the weakness that gave rise to it.

All political leaders have strengths and weaknesses. Thatcher had great determination but in her later years should have listened more. Blair had a genuine feel for the public but was too keen to please his allies. Brown was clever but did not have the communication skills to sell his cleverness. Cameron was also bright but was overconfident. The trick is to use the strengths but to cover the weaknesses so that they do not wreck what those strengths can achieve.

Boris has his good moments. His non-partisan and generally benevolent approach sits well with the British public and he is good at articulating it. His vision of Britain is not far from that of the man in the street. Against that, however, one must set an inattention to detail and a lack of rigour, a failure to think things through adequately, a tendency towards sloppiness. There is no point suggesting that he should change his nature to cover these shortcomings. He can no more do that than add a cubit to his stature. What he must do then is to govern in a way which ensures that the analysis is carried out by others and others who he respects and listens too. That is central to his administration now and the appointment of Gove to take charge of his main political objective is an encouraging step. But he needs to follow it through. There are many of his colleagues whose talent lies with detailed thinking rather than message-selling. Greg Clark for one; Jeremy Hunt for another. They need to be given offices which will allow them to stand between the Prime Minister’s impulse and his decisions. Only then can his Government succeed.

He is not the first PM to be too impulsive. Churchill famously insisted that he would accompany the D-Day invasion until the King brought him to his senses by saying that if Churchill was going he would go too. We have no George V now and decisions about individual MPs are rightly beneath Royal Notice, but sloppiness in Government goes beyond sleaze. If decisions are not being thought through at that level, what about the ones that really matter? Come on, Boris. Forget which ministers have been political allies. Bring in the men and women of detail and support their well thought through policies with your selling skills. Do that and you can rescue your administration from tawdriness and make it a great one.

Tile photo: Paul Buffington on Unsplash

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