Cameron’s ‘buggeration factor’: Tory bitterness at the civil service might be an excuse for failure
Today we learn that David Cameron is fed up with what he calls the "buggeration factor" of trying to ram policies past the civil service. The PM's frustration is understandable, one of his former special advisers says.
"I definitely remember the civil service, especially in the Cabinet Office, using the fact they are a permanent institution that survives to delay things for their own purposes."
Sean Worth, whose ten years in politics culminated in a spell in Downing Street working for the prime minister, thinks there was a fundamental clash between the centre-right government he worked for and the institution it was determined to pare back.
It's not so much a conspiracy, he suggests, as it is an organisation that simply doesn't see eye-to-eye with a mindset which thinks the civil service is essential but not wealth-creating.
"You want to pay as little as possible for them, trim them down, keep them in check," he says. "The civil service believe they're a key engine to the economy and they're just not."
Turkeys, famously, do not vote for Christmas. Not that civil servants have a vote, of course. What they do have is their infamous ability to procrastinate, to delay, to block. They would "desperately stress-test every concept to make sure it's deliverable and implementable". They would be told to enact something, suggest a quick consultation, and end up turning it into a pilot scheme.
Ultimately, Worth claims, they were "political". So it's no surprise that it was the coalition's reforms which involved the public sector and the public services encountered so much difficulty. There's the "massively far-reaching public service reform that hasn't actually been delivered". School reforms were a "real nightmare". And health reforms were slowed down. "Working with the civil service," Worth says, "ranges from being awkward and slow to downright resistance in some places."
This is what Cameron is complaining about in his interview with the Financial Times.
It's noteworthy that he shied away from agreeing with Tony Blair's famous "scars on my back" comment about public service reforms – that sounds "a bit Fifty Shades Of Grey", he said. Finding a different approach to Blair might have been part of the problem.
Cameron was forced, because of the advent of coalition, to reinvent Cabinet government after Blair's presidential style of government. He dismantled the No 10 delivery and strategy units to his cost, says Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government think-tank.
"All prime ministers are frustrated by what they see as the irresponsiveness of the system," she says. Rutter is a former head of strategy at Defra who thinks the PM had to reinvent the wheel to get past his implementation troubles. "It's more complicated if you're in coalition," she explains, "but one of the things very notable about David Cameron was when he came into office he dismantled a lot of the capacity that had been built up by the previous government to help the prime minister… and then discovered later on that he had to recreate them."
Being in government, new arrivals in No 10 don't realise, is about a lot more than just doing what you want. Foreign crises, trips to Europe, and "events" will always get in the way. Prime ministers find they don't have a massive support structure at the centre of government which doesn't help. What the Institute for Government has recommended is for any new arrival in Downing Street to look to find the time to follow up on implementation and "challenge from the centre". It's about a lot more than just destroying what their predecessor had built up – having learned over time what is needed.
There may be another reason for the PM's moaning, former Nick Clegg special adviser Sean Kemp suggests. In his view Cameron's "buggeration factor" comment might just be a shield for something he doesn't want to admit: a lot of his ideas weren't that good in the first place.
"I'm not a big fan of constantly bashing the civil service," he says. "As a general rule, they're really good and hard-working. And they potentially stop you doing dumb things more than stopping you doing good things."
Yes, Kemp concedes, the civil service can be guilty of over-caution. But just look at Michael Gove: he showed how if a minister really wants to get something done then it can be pushed through. Policies which are roadblocked are probably "bad or unworkable", he adds. Admitting that if you're the prime minister doesn't look attractive, so it's better to keep quiet about it and find someone – or something – to scapegoat. "Rather than admitting it, you just blame the civil service rather than admitting to yourself and others you've got something wrong."
Further trouble is expected in the future, too. The civil service has taken its time in getting used to what a coalition government means. Persuading them that it's acceptable for ministers from different parties to openly disagree, or provide the junior party with sufficient resources, or even getting them to discuss politics at all, have made it harder for the politicians. "What you have to be careful of is not getting into a comfort zone – you have to push them and drive the whole machinery," Kemp says. "If you have the will to do it, you can."
Either Cameron or Ed Miliband will end up facing the "buggeration factor", such as it is, in Britain's next government after the election. In the meantime the prime minister's very particular choice of words is eyebrow-raising.
It brings to mind the time when Denis Thatcher, staying in Goa for a Commonwealth summit, was distressed by a power cut interrupting his shaving. The heads of state staying nearby were somewhat alarmed to see Margaret Thatcher's husband emerge, apparently frothing at the mouth, and yelling: "The buggeration factor is high and growing in this part of the world!" Cameron's own frustrations, it's clear, are following in a long and noble Conservative tradition.