There’s a scene in Yes Prime Minister with Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey, the Machiavellian head of the civil service. Hacker has just become PM and has decided that he wants to ‘take action’. This consists of cancelling Trident, investing £15billion in conventional defences and re-introducing conscription, thus saving on the balance of payments, creating employment and stopping the arms race. When Sir Humphrey objects, Jim Hacker says, ‘I’m PM. I have the power.’ Sir Humphrey retorts, ‘Yes, within the law and the constitution and the constraints of administrative precedent, budget feasibility and cabinet government. ‘
I’ve been thinking about that scene this week, as the pound crashes and everyone is rushing in to blame Liz Truss and Kwazi Kwarteng for ‘their’ budget and ‘schoolboy errors’. Now, I am no fan of Liz Truss or any Tory. But I have sat open mouthed at the criticism directed at them, as if they planned and executed this budget by themselves over a cheeky prosecco. Of course they didn’t. No one gets to do a budget by themselves. You don’t get to do it for a local authority, never mind the UK. When I was a councillor and we had to do the budget, we met with the heads of the services and the head of finance. They told us what had to be paid, what was left over, what was feasible and what was not. If savings had to be made, they told us how it could be done. And there were legal constraints on what we could borrow and what we could invest in. There was a set of treasury rules. For example, after the 1993 Western Isles Council debacle when BCCI bank crashed, most councils’ treasury rules included a prohibition on buying subordinate (‘junk’) bonds. And we also had to agree things with our colleagues. It was a collective responsibility.
As with local authorities, so it is with central government. Most politicians that come through the revolving door of government only have a nodding acquaintance with the kind of accounts and rules that have to be followed. Which means that various civil servants guide them and limit them when necessary. So stand up Simon Case, head of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary. Where were you this week? Or Gareth Davies, current Comptroller and Auditor General. What were you doing when these ‘schoolboy errors’ were put before you? For that matter, stand up the entire cabinet. What were you doing?. Surely some of you have done PPE at university; politics, philosophy and economics. Liz Truss has. Even if you didn’t, you would have been advised by civil servants who do economics for a living and who should have told the whole cabinet that it was unworkable. All of you; the PM, the Chancellor, the cabinet and the civil servants have collective responsibility. You can’t just blame it all on the PM. You don’t get to do that in cabinet government.
If this budget is so financially incompetent that the Bank of England has to step in with quantitive easing to alleviate it, then it has to be stopped. It’s the rules. It’s covered by the Civil Service Code and Standards in Public Life, underpinned by Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. There is no excuse for the current combination of shouting for Liz Truss’s head and no confidence letters, while at the same time lamely accepting that this is going ahead. The proper response to this is not another three-month Conservative beauty competition for a new leader, but for the Civil Service/MPs/cabinet to use the powers they have to stop this budget. If they don’t, then they are complicit. Which leads us onto these questions.
Why are they – with emphasis on ‘they’, allowing this to go ahead? Who benefits from a crashing pound and the subsequent firesale of national assets that will follow? And why haven’t they been arrested yet?
Frankie Boyle said that we’re not in the middle of a crisis; we’re in the middle of a robbery. I’m starting to think he’s right.