The closer David Cameron gets to the election, the more he may come to realise how short-lived the elation following his victory may be. Defeating an exhausted Labour party will be the easy part. Winning real power will be a separate, longer battle — and one that requires him to outwit an enemy far more cunning and resilient than Gordon Brown. To transform Britain means seeing off the cronies, placemen and political stooges with whom the government has packed the boards of Britain’s quangos.
Over the Labour years these groups have swelled from an irritant into a state within a state. With 700,000 employees and boards that read like a who-was-who of the Blair/Brown era, the quangos will represent Labour’s stay-behind fifth column. Not only are the quangocrats implacably opposed to the Conservatives’ reform programme, but they are better placed than even the wiliest Sir Humphrey to thwart change and mount a guerrilla insurgency against public spending controls.
To go to war with some 1,160 disparate organisations may strike Mr Cameron as a tiring diversion, but he should remember what he has promised the British public: change. It is a word he used no fewer than 20 times at the Tory conference last year and he has used it at every opportunity since then. More even than Tony Blair and Barack Obama before him, Mr Cameron has held out the promise that his victory will inaugurate a thoroughgoing transformation of government in Britain. He will be judged by his ability to deliver on such an emphatic promise.
To postpone picking a fight with the quangocracy will be to surrender to the status quo.
Back in 1997, Tony Blair certainly had no qualms about shooing out yesterday’s men and replacing them with diverse embodiments of modernity.
A new establishment was being created — one exemplified by Dame Suzi Leather. Until 1997 she had been working as a freelance consumer consultant (whatever one of those may be — perhaps the third sector’s equivalent of a personal shopper?). She was then made chair of Exeter & District NHS Trust, thence to deputy chair of the Food Standards Agency, chair of the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, and via the School Food Trust and sundry other public offices to her present eminence as chair of the Charity Commission, where her avowed Labour party membership alarms the heads and governors of private schools who fear losing their charitable status.
Dame Suzi may have appeared from nowhere, but many senior public appointments have been filled by former Labour ministers. David Clark got the Forestry Commission, Chris Smith the Environment Agency, Geoff Rooker the Food Standards Agency. Larry Whitty, the party’s former general secretary, is chairman of Consumer Focus (where Dame Suzi is a fellow board member — that freelance consumer consultancy experience came in useful after all). Baroness Morgan won a seat on the board of the Olympic Delivery Authority, Lord Warner went straight into a paid NHS chairmanship. The list seems endless.
When not personally pocketing public money, the quangocrats are frequently to be found passing it on to their ideological soulmates in the left-leaning think-tanks. Demos, the IPPR and the New Economics Foundation have all been recipients of large sums from public bodies. Some quangos even retain political consultants to represent them at Westminster. Thus the taxpayer finds himself giving money to a government that passes it to a quango, which in turn hires a lobbyist to press the government to raise more money from the taxpayer to pass to the quango, and so on ad infinitum.
The Tories talk about reducing the number of quangos, but this will not be enough. Their number has fallen under Labour — but only because they have amalgamated and grown stronger still.
The Centre for Policy Studies recently released a compelling manifesto for the abolition of 11 education quangos, which would save the taxpayers some £630 million. This is just the start of questions that can be asked. If we have an Environment Agency, why do we also need an Energy Savings Trust, environmental campaigns, Environwise and an Air Quality Standards? What, precisely, has been achieved by the Regional Development Agencies after ten years and £15 billion of taxpayers’ money?
Seeking to reform quangos is pointless: this is the lesson of the last Tory government. Abolition is the only effective tool and one which would not just save billions and reduce the deficit, but also simplify government. All these things Mr Cameron says he wishes to do. But at some stage he will have to fight to get what he wants. To put off a battle with the quangos now means he will face an even tougher fight later.
This is possibly the most important article you will read this week. The above is only an extract. The message is clear. The Conservatives shouldn't waste their time trying to place their own people in the quangos. Labour has already got the appointments stitched up for years to come. The only way to address the problem is to abolish those quangos which are wasteful and unnecessary. And there are plenty of them.