This government’s growing catalogue of errors


3:01 pm - October 10th 2011

by Chris Dillow    


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Liam Fox’s admission that “mistakes were made” (note the cliched passive voice) in his dealings with Adam Werrity reminds me of a curiosity about this government – that it doesn’t seem very good at the nitty-gritty of governing.

By this I don’t mean that it has the wrong policies. Errors in policy and administration are inevitable. I mean instead the sheer number of unforced errors that it has made.

Fox is just continuing a pattern, for example:

– Theresa May gives the impression that she’s basing policy upon a story that’s not only a pack of lies, but not even her own lies. Did she really think she could get away with this?

– David Cameron appointed Andy Coulson as his press secretary, despite his being associated with allegations of phone-hacking.

– Andrew Lansley has been unable to explain the point of his NHS reforms; what exactly is the problem to which they are the solution?

– The huge number of “u-turns” the government has done suggests a lack of forethought and/or an inability to prepare public opinion for its policy announcements.

– When Michael Gove closed the Building Schools for the Future programme, it took him five attempts to name the schools that would be affected by this.

– Recent policy announcements, such as on weekly bin collections and raising the motorway speed limit, have been on trivial matters – the sort of things a tired government in its fifth year of office might do, rather than the significant changes we’d expect early in its term.

– The government has failed to find the genuine efficiency savings it promised.

These episodes seem to confirm Zoe Williams’ assessment, that we’re looking at a government with “no idea what governing entails, let loose on a system with no clue about its structure and mechanisms.”

Considering the Tories are supposed to be the “natural party of government”, they seem remarkably bad at governing.

Which brings me to a hypothesis. Could it be that its incompetence arises precisely because it believes it is the natural party of government? Cameron and his colleagues think they are entitled to rule, and this causes them to under-rate the importance of working hard and following procedures such as ensuring that ministerial meetings had civil servants present.

This is compounded by another error. If you think your policies are simple common sense, then you’ll believe them to be self-evidently right, and so won’t bother thinking about details and counter-arguments.

You’ll ignore the fact that governing is not like bashing out a 1000-word column before breakfast.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments


Could it be that its incompetence arises precisely because it believes it is the natural party of government?

How you would prove it I don’t know, and besides isn’t that an error of the ‘Fill-In-Your-Name-Here’ variety? That is, it wouldn’t really affect this lot more than any other. And it doesn’t seem to differ from Tory to Lib Dem.

I don’t think you can underestimate the paranoia and hatred of Labour affecting judgement. Whether it’s refusing to take lessons from The Evil Ones even when they’ll take the same lessons from someone else, or thinking that the National Trust are only in violent disagreement because they are being confused by enemies of the state, or believing that Labour deliberately did stupid things on purpose, therefore governing is quite easy don’tchaknow and that all that matter is looking good compared with someone you are convinced everyone hates, they’ve got all the excuses ready even before the problems arise, so they’re not too bothered when they do. Again, ‘Fill-In-Your-Name-Here’, it just seems so much stronger this time round.

2. Steven Van der Werf

Well… yes.

we have this lovely situation where a bunch of entitleds are doing their thing, completely unaware that they actually have some standards to live up to, and jolly well sick of those noisy Plebians demanding competence and logical arguments.

and of course comedically irritated that the buggers didn’t actually vote them into power. Best way to deal with that is make the Liberals look as bad as humanly possible, in the hope that next time people will be sensible enough to just vote Tory.

I never though I’d appreciate Alex Salmond anywhere near as much as I do now. Or at all, for that matter.

The Tories in the cabinet may feel that they have the right to govern. But the real problem. I think, is that it isn’t the visible government – at least in some departments – that is making the policy that the visible government is trying to implement.

At the front we have two half-educated, not really very intelligent men, Cameron and Osborne, who have never actually needed to work or to find a proper job or to think about what it requires to carry a job through.

And who have never mixed with the real mass of Tory voters.

However, they have been put in charge of implementing policies that they never designed, but are the work of the proliferating neoconservative and neoliberal ‘thinktanks’ and agreements of the millionaires and billionaires who own the party.

Policies like selling off the assets of the NHS to reward the funders of the party, while distracting the voters with hates against the undeserving poor and foreigners.

The only senior member of the cabinet who seems to me to be on top of both policy and implementation is Gove. He is against the whole principle of education being provided by the state, seems to have a plan for carrying out the destruction of state education in stages, and is implementing it.

4. Rob the crip

After 13 years of new labour which many people seem to have forgotten, then having the odd U turn has been welcome.

It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

At the front we have two half-educated, not really very intelligent men, Cameron and Osborne.

You are either applying a remarkably high standard here, or are yourself lamentably ignorant.

7. Steven Van der Werf

Labour were in many ways bloody dreadful, couldn’t agree more. The key difference between the Blair years and Cameronism is that Blair was at least socially aware.

life for the poor, the disabled and the less fortunate is already considerably harder under the Con-Dems. And it’s going to get a lot worse.

the problem with Cameron-Osborne is a profound lack of understanding as to why, and what they’re doing about it.

What we saw with Labour was some relatively sensible policy wrapped up in gratuitously overcooked bureaucracy, and bad policy wrapped in grim ideology [read: everything Jack Straw ever did.]

With Con-Dem we have nonsensical policy wrapped up in thoughtless chatter. Very few of their ideas look remotely workable or appropriate, and their concept of debating is ‘No you’re listening wrong’, followed by Cameron deciding to do something else. Example: the Big Society, which fell flat on its arse when the Voluntary sector pointed out that they were already doing all that, and Cameron’s ideas would make it spectacularly more difficult to keep it going.

@2: I never though I’d appreciate Alex Salmond anywhere near as much as I do now. Or at all, for that matter.

I suspect Salmond’s game plan is to hold off as long as possible for his referendum, so that people will be so pissed off with the Tories they’ll jump at the chance of never living under a Tory government for the rest of their lives.

I also suspect that many people in the Tory party, perhaps even Cameron himself, would welcome this, even if they won’t publically say so.

9. Steven Van der Werf

Absolutely, Phil.

the Tories lost Scotland quite some time ago. It’s actually quite nice to hear the Party in Scotland openly admit it. I feel it’s only a matter of time before they stop trying.
it’s just important to note that that is *not* and anti-English sentiment.

Of course, there are issues here but there is a lot of froth. The extent of media coverage is OTT and being stoked to deflect public attention from more potent and damaging issues for the government – such as Britain’s flagging economy, which has a greater impact on the everyday welfare of most folk.

Perhaps we should assume that the Conservatives planned for government on their own and that the errors are what happens when Tories have to make policy on the hoof. Or to negotiate on the hoof, foolishly assuming that the economy will drop into free flight if composition of government is not agreed over a weekend.

LibDem history, according to David Laws, is that the party was prepared for coalition and prepared for negotiation. And it can be argued that the LibDem negotiators earned enough concessions to win party support and to piss off the right of the Conservative party. It also has to be said that Conservative concessions (and early LibDem triumphs such as the tax threshold increase) are dimming in popular memory (always assuming that any bulbs glowed in the first place).

Two things spring to mind when I see the mess the Cameron government has got itself into in less than two years in office.

The first is that Liam Fox should either resign or be sacked, whether or not he did anything improper is unclear, but he is certainly too naive in his choice of associates to continue in high office. He won’t go though, chiefly because Cameron lacks the clout with the right of his party to make him.

The second is that, as the miserable non-event of a Tory conference last week demonstrated this is a government with few ideas when it comes to dealing with the economic crisis soon to land on our collective heads. Instead we have been promised more bin collections and the opportunity to drive the cars we can no longer afford to run a little faster.

This might please the sort of people who watch Top Gear or write letters to the Daily Mail, but it in no way represents a plan for taming the city, untouchable because they’re big donors to Tory coffers, or fixing our dangerously unequal society.

13. Leon Wolfson

@4 – This government announce the U-turns, Labour just buried it’s mistakes. The effect is identical.

@8 – Right. And he wants Scotland and those contrary voters gone. If they do, then the future of the Union as a whole needs to be questioned. (If England then left the EU, Scotland wouldn’t…a whole new can of…)

14. David Boothroyd
15. So Much For Subtlety

Could it be that its incompetence arises precisely because it believes it is the natural party of government? Cameron and his colleagues think they are entitled to rule, and this causes them to under-rate the importance of working hard and following procedures such as ensuring that ministerial meetings had civil servants present.

It is more likely because the Natural Party of Government felt so rejected by the Blair years that they turned from their traditional mainstay – people who were older with a lot of experience outside politics, or those raised from birth to rule – to a bunch of shallow, inexperienced, childish spin artists with no real beliefs or talents.

What they need to do is return to their roots as the party of anyone who has thought seriously about politics since their University days.

16. Chaise Guevara

@ 15 SMFS

“What they need to do is return to their roots as the party of anyone who has thought seriously about politics since their University days.”

When was this wonderful period when all people who had thought seriously about politics since their University days voted Tory? Can I see the data, please?

I was actually nodding along with your post until I saw you couldn’t help ending with yet another of your tiresome “all sensible/clever/well-informed people agree with me” digs. Get over yourself.

17. organic cheeseboard

you could also mention Michael Gove’s office communicating via gmail accounts so as to avoid civil service scrutiny…

I’m afraid all this demonstrates is short memory syndrome. Since Governments do so damned much it is all but inevitable that not all of it will go smoothly. It’s still early days for the Coalition, but nothing they have done even begins to challenge the serial stuff-ups of previous administrations.

Look at the Rural Payments Agency foul up, where farmers went unpaid for years, but faced tax demands for the payments they hadn’t received. Or the NHS Spine project – how many billions is that over budget? Looking at basic governing competence on what ought to be a more controllable level, look at Tony Blair’s attempted abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor, which lasted about an hour – or indeed any of his reshuffles.

Or look at John Major’s botched privatisation of the railways – it’s not limited to any one party. The errors you catalogue are pretty damn minor in the grand scheme of things – do you seriously think that Theresa May’s speech is going to be remembered by anybody in a month’s time? Michael Gove’s BSF lists fuck up is already forgotten by all but the most dedicated geeks.

Very much inclined to agree with Tim J here. Just look at the Government IT projects gone wrong page on my website, or the equivalent that ORG (used) keep updating. Mine is just IT alone during a few years of a Labour government, and it’s longer than Chris Dillow’s list above (i.e. neither list a comprehensive study, just indicative of a problem with our political system in general).

Why do we expect any other result? Our representatives are not elected on the basis of their skills in such fields as they come to be made responsible for as Ministers; nor are Ministers qualified in or have backgrounds in the areas they are made responsible for. In what way is Theresa May competent to talk about the law and policing? In what way is Dr Liam Fox competent to talk about the military?

20. So Much For Subtlety

16. Chaise Guevara

When was this wonderful period when all people who had thought seriously about politics since their University days voted Tory? Can I see the data, please?

Pretty much any time you like. The Tories have always done badly in British student politics and among the young. They do well among the old. There are probably many reasons for that – but one that is hard to avoid is that people come out of their student days with naive political views that they are gradually disillusioned with as they gain experience of the real world. Then they become Tories. Of course if you have massive evidence of Political Science majors join the Tories only to realise they were wrong by Middle Age and so join Labour I would like to see it. The fact is the Left in the West is largely made up of people who became Leftists when young (or students if they are politicians) while the Right is mainly made up of people who used to be Leftists but are now older.

I was actually nodding along with your post until I saw you couldn’t help ending with yet another of your tiresome “all sensible/clever/well-informed people agree with me” digs. Get over yourself.

I don’t for one moment think that sensible people agree with me. I don’t think anyone much agrees with me. But then I am not a Tory.

21. Chaise Guevara

@ 20 SMFS

“Pretty much any time you like. The Tories have always done badly in British student politics and among the young. They do well among the old.”

Sure, but someone in their 20s or 30s who votes Labour/Lib Dem and went to uni has still presumably thought seriously about politics since their uni days.

“There are probably many reasons for that – but one that is hard to avoid is that people come out of their student days with naive political views that they are gradually disillusioned with as they gain experience of the real world.”

Not so much “hard to avoid” as “attractive if you happen to be right-wing”. Other possibilities include: older people tend to be richer and therefore have a selfish motive for voting Tory; people probably become more susceptible to moral panic once they have kids (and the Tories get the most mileage out of selling fear, although other parties aren’t innocent of this); you presumably become more inclined towards hindsight bias as you age, and rightwing sources are more likely to try to sell you a dream of a semi-mythical past golden age.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Matt Jones

    http://t.co/VS4wvrtp they make a good point (via @libcon)

  2. w.m o'mara

    Considering Tories are supposed to be the “natural party of government”, they seem remarkably bad at governing : @libcon http://ht.ly/6SBgt

  3. Dario Llinares

    Considering Tories are supposed to be the “natural party of government”, they seem remarkably bad at governing : @libcon http://ht.ly/6SBgt

  4. Alex Braithwaite

    This government’s growing catalogue of errors | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/fA5eZ7iA via @libcon

  5. iamjonathanwood

    Considering Tories are supposed to be the “natural party of government”, they seem remarkably bad at governing : @libcon http://ht.ly/6SBgt

  6. landley

    The Dunning-Kruger Effect in action: RT @RichardJMurphy “natural party of government” seem remarkably bad at governing: http://t.co/nKWSpywc

  7. liane gomersall

    This government’s growing catalogue of errors | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/uQVKngqR via @libcon

  8. Jonathon Blakeley

    This government’s growing catalogue of errors | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/wer2lSig via @libcon

  9. Paul W Lowthian

    Considering Tories are supposed to be the “natural party of government”, they seem remarkably bad at governing : @libcon http://ht.ly/6SBgt

  10. Colin Talbot

    This government’s growing catalogue of errors | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/rm7OdgYG via @libcon

  11. Patrick Walsh

    This government’s growing catalogue of errors | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/YTu9KhA9 via @libcon

  12. Fox trots off, Ed gets the upper hand on the economy and Cameron faces a nightmare over the NHS: round up of political blogs for 8 – 14 October | British Politics and Policy at LSE

    […] Conspiracy notes that this government isn’t very good at the ‘nitty-gritty’ of governing, while Chris Bowers at Dale & Co looks at what the real role of the Liberal Democrats in […]





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