The Party in Government
Conor Gearty on how the Tories behave
The last two years of sleaze have given the false impression that there is something new about the way in which this government now runs the country. In fact it has been an inefficient, authoritarian, hypocritical and morally bankrupt administration almost since the day it took office in 1979. Its ministers have been resigning (or not resigning) in disgrace ever since its inception. The nepotism shown towards its ‘family’ of opportunistic supporters has been evident from the start but has now grown to such a level that even the Tories themselves are interspersing their frenzies of patronage and self-aggrandisement with calls for moderation and integrity in public office, rather as the inveterate drunk forswears all alcohol during a hangover. The corruption of this long era of Conservative rule extends beyond personal venality. Though loudly committed to the rule of law, especially when it meant ruining the unions in the early Eighties, the Government has found its own actions frequently castigated as unlawful in the British courts, and pilloried in Strasbourg for the infringement of human rights. Its response has been to contrive legal ruses the effect of which has been often to place it quite literally above the law. This contempt towards one great limb of the British Constitution has been matched by the scorn it has shown towards another for which it has also affected respect. The Government’s cynical control of the Commons and its contemptuous disregard of the Lords have allowed it singlehandedly to turn Britain into the impoverished and unequal nation that it now finds itself to be. If it is the recent explosion of personal baseness that middle England has now finally noticed, then we should be thankful that they have noticed anything at all. The grasping mediocrity of this administration’s members is by no means its worst fault but it is the most beneficial to the nation if it is what eventually leads to its timely collapse.
The resignations are the best-publicised outgrowth of governmental decay. The litany of names reads like the cast-list of some bizarre Antipodean soap: Allan Stewart, wielder of the pick-axe; Michael Mates, sender of the famous watch; Norman Lamont, evictor (with some help from the tax-payer) of the tenant with too colourful a professional life; Patrick Nicholls, suspected drunk driver; Nicholas Ridley, too loquacious an advocate of anti-German feeling; and Mrs Edwina Currie (‘most of the egg production in this country is, sadly, now infected with salmonella’). Then there is the long line of sex-scandal casualties: Cecil Parkinson, Tim Yeo, David Mellor (greatly exaggerated, but not his only alleged misdemeanour), Hartley Booth, Michael Brown (though he is a borderline case, since he resigned from office while denying allegations that he had had a homosexual relationship). We should also not forget David Trevinnick and Graham Riddick, suspended from their jobs as Parliamentary Private Secretaries over allegations that they had each accepted £1000 in return for tabling Parliamentary written questions. The same ‘cash for questions’ controversy also later accounted for two senior ministers, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton, who had to leave their posts at the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Trade respectively.
The paradox behind this extraordinary succession of resignations is that none of them has been for what traditional constitutional law would suggest should be their main reason. When it comes to ministerial responsibility to Parliament for departmental error, the story is of ministers clinging to office rather than being expelled from it. In this respect, non-resignations can in many ways be as disgraceful as resignations. The leading figure here is Kenneth Baker, who perfected a theory about why he should slay as Home Secretary despite the succession of calamities that surrounded him, until he was eventually jettisoned by the Prime Minister after the 1992 election. Holding steadfastly to the view that policy was all that he was responsible for, and that culpability for administrative failures lay elsewhere, Mr Baker survived the escape of IRA remand prisoners from Brixton Prison, a series of scandals about vicious dogs and a House of Lords judicial decision that he was in contempt of court, among many other political reverses. The current incumbent at the Home Office, Michael Howard, has been able to rely on the example set by his tenacious predecessor when resisting calls for his resignation after similar tumultuous events.
There is at least a kind of naked honesty about such determined ambition. In the early Conservative era, the novel idea of ‘offering to resign’ (rather than simply ‘resigning’) was developed as a way of allowing honourable men to stay in office without appearing to want to do so. John Nott offered his resignation after the Falklands invasion but he allowed himself to be persuaded by Mrs Thatcher to stay in office. William Whitelaw has written that he wanted to resign as Home Secretary after an intruder had entered the Queen’s bedroom in Buckingham Palace, but that Mrs Thatcher would not let him. Jim Prior unsuccessfully tried to resign as Northern Ireland Secretary after a mass break-out of Republican prisoners from the Maze prison, and Peter Brooke failed in a more recent attempt to leave the same office after he had sung a song on a television chat show in the Republic of Ireland, hours after seven people had been killed in a particularly bad atrocity in the Province.
While ministers have been quick to take credit for perceived policy successes, and quick also to point out that administrative errors are somebody else’s problem, they have never followed the logic of this position and accepted that they must take personal responsibility for policy failures. The most spectacular example of this was Norman Lamont’s undisguised joy in the aftermath of the failure of the economic policies for which he had been responsible as Chancellor of the Exchequer in summer 1992, the collapse of which had nearly bankrupted the nation. (His wife was reported as having heard the former Chancellor spontaneously bursting into song in his bath.) Similarly blameless, apparently, were the ministers responsible for the poll tax, the Child Support Agency and the policy of Post Office privatisation, to name just three of the more well-known and obvious of the Government’s vast number of failed initiatives.
Quite why ministers should be reluctant to resign is not obvious once the clever way in which they have arranged matters for their retirement is taken into account. The Ministerial and Other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991 provides for tax-free golden handshakes for ministers leaving the Government. The first of these pay-outs were made on 11 April 1992, with the former Defence Secretary Tom King, the finally jettisoned Kenneth Baker, and the former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke each receiving £8049 of public money to assuage their sense of political failure. Lord Waddington stood down as Leader of the House of Lords at the same time, for which he received £12,639, plus (shortly afterwards) the Governorship of Bermuda, at a salary of £63,000 per annum. David Mellor received £8049 when he resigned. Michael Mates received £5137 when he stepped down. Even Norman Lamont got his £8049, supplemented soon afterwards by a job with N.M. Rothschild at a salary reputed to be in the region of £50,000 per annum. Mr Lamont has since become chair of the Taiwan Investment Trust, director of the First Philippine Trust and an occasional consultant with the investment managers Jupiter Tyndall: not bad going for a man with Mr Lamont’s record in high office.
Throughout the Thatcher/Major years, the apparent humiliation of departure from office has become for many ex-ministers the starting point for a new, apparently coincidental, but invariably highly remunerative career in the City, the opportunity for which has been repeatedly said to be entirely due to the ex-minister’s talents and to be unconnected in any way with any earlier ministerial position that he might possibly have held. As Lord Gowrie claimed when resigning from his post as Arts Minister in September 1985 to join Sotheby’s for a reputedly six-figure salary, it is impossible to live on a cabinet salary in Central London. Public-spirited ministers who persevere in public office have to make up for lost time. Thus, 99 days after resigning as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Autumn 1989, Nigel Lawson became a non-executive director of Barclays Bank and an adviser within the Barclays Group. His two-day-a-week job was reportedly worth £100,000 a year. Shortly afterwards, he became a director of the GPA Group, then the world’s biggest aircraft leasing company, with a salary estimated at £40,000 per annum for the two or three days work a month that was involved. In due course he became Lord Lawson. George Younger had reportedly not formally disclosed that he was to leave his post as Secretary of State for Defence before it was announced that he was to join the Royal Bank of Scotland and Murray Johnston Trusts.