Process stories

Two bits of news about the business of Government that have caught my attention over the last few days.

The quad has become the sextet – As we’ve come to see over the past couple of years, a lot of the real decisions about the direction of the Government are being taken by the ‘quad’: David Cameron, George Osbourne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. That’s now expanded include David Laws and Oliver Letwin.
Philip Hammond is pushing on with Trident replacement contracts – The ‘main gate’ decision isn’t meant to be taken until 2016, but work is still being undertaken as though that’s already been decided. Institutional inertia, anyone?

I’ve linked these stories because they both highlight something important about this government that I don’t see being talked about much, possibly because we’ve all internalized the belief that no one wants to talk about process stories. I’m usually inclined to agree, but the problem can be to assume that process and policy aren’t strongly linkes. Sure, in Government they can’t exist without each other, but we must not forget that the way the process is structured can effect the policy as it works through the system. (I had a whole lot of analogies here, none of which worked)

Nick Harvey’s removal from the MoD without a Liberal Democrat replacement coming in for him has already sparked off lots of discussion about the Trident review and replacement and today’s announcement is just a small part of that. The key point here, though, is that there’s now no longer someone like Nick Harvey fighting that corner in the MoD day to day. Clegg and Alexander are supposedly overseeing the issue, but that’s different from actually having a minister in there – overseers tend to only get to see what the process spits out at the end, when what’s needed here is someone to influence it a long time before final reports are made.

This is why I think the recent reshuffle is going to cause lots of issues further down the line as the implications of it are felt. As well as Liberal Democrats leaving certain areas behind, it also saw the Tories shift rightwards, and the additions to the quad make it look unlikely that it’s going to provide any brake to that tendency. The quad determines what does and doesn’t get done in government, what each party is willing to trade off with the other and for what. The Liberal Democrat members of it have an important job to do in not just keeping government running smoothly, but in understanding and representing what the party will and will not accept. Unfortunately, adding David Laws to it doesn’t instil much confidence in me that the party’s full range of views are going to be reflected. Adding in another member of the party ‘right’, someone ideologically closer to the Tories than many others in the party, seems to me to be a strategic error.

If we’re really seeking to act as a handbrake on the Tories, why is the centre of political gravity on the quad so far to the right? The quad might just be a process within government, but the decisions it makes – explicitly or implicitly – have an ideological effect on what policies get pushed through the system. Yet again, too much is being conceded to the Tories before proper discussions even start, and we know where that’s led us before.

2 thoughts on “Process stories”

  1. Is there any reason to think having a Lib Dem junior minister in place makes much of a difference? If you asked people, “what’s the most destructive right-wing bill of the Coalition government so far?”, a lot of people would say, “Andrew Lansley’s Health Bill”. And there was a Lib Dem minister of state, Paul Burstow, in place while it went through the Commons. A lot of people think the Treasury is the source of much of the government’s poison, and there’s Lib Dem Danny Alexander, sitting in the Cabinet “day to day”. Or, if you’re willing to concede (as this post suggests) that Alexander, Clegg, and Laws are part of the right-wing problem, take the obnoxious immigration agenda being pursued by the Home Office–where Lynn Featherstone has been a Lib Dem junior minister, and it’s not obvious how having her argue a Lib Dem case behind Home Office doors makes much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. I could probably go on.

    I can more or less see how having a ministry headed up by a Lib Dem MP is a way of blocking extraordinarily right-wing policy from being enacted. And I can see how junior ministers might be effective against Conservative orthodoxy when there’s business affecting the very particular bit of the ministry with which they are concerned. But in general, Lib Dem junior ministers seem to me to be largely irrelevant at slowing the tide of the Tory right.

    1. The problem is that there isn’t a parallel government with no Lib Dems in to compare it to, so as to see what effect ministers have had. And I’ll freely admit that some have gone native (or seem far too enthusiastic about collective responsibility) and seem to be pushing the government agenda rather than the liberal one.

      I think I garbled my point in the post, though – it was meant to be a criticism of how Clegg et al have run the process of government, and have been much too willing to acquiesce (and replace those who are too stubborn) rather than negotiate with a tough stance. As I said before, the whole ‘we must show that coalition government works’ attitude and associated ‘we can’t quit’ attitude encourages the Tories to run roughshod over them. I think there’s a tendency in the party to spend too much time celebrating small wins and not enough noticing how we’ve allowed the process to be skewed against us.

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