Writing on his blog, Tory MP Douglas Carswell has claimed that unpopular measures in the Budget resulted from civil servants rather than Ministers taking decisions on issues like the so-called Pasty Tax on hot takeaway food and tax changes for pensioners. It’s a view that has been widely reported – Carswell appears to be arguing that Ministers need to get a grip on the Budget to make bold proposals.
It seems to me, as a former Civil Servant actively involved in a number of Budgets before my retirement last year, that this is likely to be excuse-mongering of a strange and low kind. If it’s true, though, the implications are pretty significant.
Yes, it’s undoubtedly true that officials – both in the Treasury and in other Departments – have measures that they have long advocated, usually for good reasons (I can certainly see how the VAT purists in the Treasury might have been gravely offended by the messy situation on tax on takeaway food, a mess that itself looks like the outcome of a political compromise). It is routine for Departmental Ministers to write to Treasury Ministers with their list of budget proposals – a process that itself sits at the peak of routine discussions between Departmental and Treasury officials. Many of these are rejected, for a variety of reasons. Space in the Finance Bill is always limited – there are always measures, often quite technical and uncontroversial, which Ministers and officials regard as desirable but are ruled out of the Bill on the grounds of space. Measures were constantly reviewed and may be changed or dropped at any stage in the process. Ministers frequently asked for work, often at very short notice, to evaluate different options. Draft clauses – and notes on clauses – for the Finance Bill were drafted and scrutinised. The Budget and Finance Bill was always intense and exhausting – and my involvement was not normally with headline proposals.
But the point about the Budget process is that, certainly in my experience, it has always been intensely political. Ministers and Special Advisers have always taken the lead on shaping the Budget, with officials often exploring combinations and ranges of options up until the weekend before the Budget announcement. The idea that Civil Servants’ pet schemes could slip through without Ministers noticing is – or was – absolutely inconceivable.
Unless, of course, things have changed and the process in which I participated under Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling has been largely dismantled – and for such a thing to have happened would have been as a result of Ministerial rather than official action. The Budget and Finance Bill culture is too deeply ingrained in Whitehall for there to be any other explanation. Essentially, for Carswell’s explanation to be accurate, it would mean that Coalition Ministers had taken their collective eyes off the ball and to have withdrawn from active participation in the process in a way that is, frankly, inconceivable.
So what is the substance of Carswell’s claim? The implication appears to be that, if this is more than excuse-mongering, Coalition Ministers have lost their grip on the Budget process to an astonishing extent. I have no inside knowledge of what this year’s Budget round was like, but the idea that high-profile tax changes could be made without serious Ministerial scrutiny suggests that Ministers have abandoned even the most basic disciplines of Government.
Although excuse-mongering still looks like the most plausible reason for Carswell’s comments, the alternative – that Treasury Ministers have lost their grip and are badly out of their depth – seems all too plausible. Not just on the basis of almost every interview that Danny Alexander gives, but because repeatedly this Government, having sacked enormous numbers of experienced civil servants, has shown time and again that it just cannot do the basics of government. I’ve posted examples before – for example here and here – and remain convinced that this is a Government that is more interested in ideology and politics than governing, a government that values ideological narrative above empirical reality and is simply not interested in the serious business of evidence-based policy-making.
If Carswell’s comments are a piece of political excuse-mongering, it’s a piece of low politics that probably doesn’t matter very much. Kicking decent public officials who can’t answer back is cheap and cowardly, but that’s Tories and Liberal Democrats for you. If it’s actually an honest view of what went on in Whitehall before the Budget, it’s an astonishing insight into the sheer incompetence of Osborne and his Ministers.