Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament - Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  Q180  David Heyes: I wonder how we would get to this better political world you paint for us. The reality is that no Prime Minister, no government in power, is going to yield the power which exists in the payroll vote, in the number of ministerial appointments available to him; is going to yield power to potentially troublesome select committees like this one. You did not do it when you had the chance, how is it going to be brought about, how are we going to achieve it?

  Sir John Major: I think the answer to that question is because there is a general recognition amongst senior politicians and among every Member of Parliament that the reputation of the House of Commons has fallen and needs to be restored. One of the methods of restoring the House of Commons would be reforms of that sort. I hope it is not too starry-eyed to imagine there are still a lot of people in the House of Commons, to borrow Charles Walker's point, who are concerned about the reputation and nature of the House of Commons. I am sure you are. I think if that is the case, then you can have these reforms and see them implemented. I think they should be implemented. If we continue as we are, if the reputation of the House of Commons continues to fall, for whatever reason, then I think that is immensely damaging to almost every aspect of our way of life, and it needs to be reversed, and I think politicians know that. If that means some uncomfortable decisions for an incoming government or a continuing government, well so be it. That is a necessary change which I think they would be prepared to accept. You are quite right, I did not do it. I have not come here to plead there was some golden age in which every democratic reform which needed to be made was made by me. I am not saying that. What I am saying is that having had the experience of being in government and then seeing it from outside, I can now see more clearly than you can from within the Westminster/Whitehall circus the sort of changes which I think need to be made and which would be well received across the country.

  Q181  Julie Morgan: Sir John, going back to your discussion with the Chairman, why would you be so much against coalition governments, particularly if that reflects how the public feel and voted?

  Sir John Major: Only because I think it is more difficult to take really difficult, structural decisions. One point about politics at the moment is that the decisions government has to take are more complex and more difficult than the decisions we have had to take in the past. The easy things have been done, the difficult things remain to be done. If you have a coalition government, there is always the tendency that when something is very unpopular but necessary, if you try and put it through with a minority government, the third party or fourth party, whatever it may be, which supports that government may withdraw their support and the government may collapse. I think that does mean the really serious problems which need to be tackled—and there are going to be a lot of them over the next few years—are now and will probably not be taken because the government of the day would fear they could not get them through the House of Commons. The example I gave will not appeal particularly to many members of this Committee, but I very much doubt, whether you agree with them or disagree with them, that the trade union reforms of the 1980s could have been got through a Parliament in which a government did not have a majority. I doubt in future that some of the difficult decisions which may have to be taken about retirement age and things of that sort, would necessarily get through with a minority government, and everyone in this room can think of other examples like that. So I think the advantage of the government having a majority, particularly in terms of a crisis, is that it can actually do things which are unpopular but necessary, whereas I think with a minority government that is less likely to be the case unless you have a very mature series of opposition parties who will recognise the national interest and push aside the short-term political advantage of ousting the government.

  Q182  Chairman: Your Government was a coalition, was it not?

  Sir John Major: I did once say that, I believe. It was an unstructured comment caught on a microphone—not the only one of mine I recall. Certainly I did say that once, I think it was in Canada.

  Q183  Chairman: Life would have been happier with a proper coalition, would it not?

  Sir John Major: I doubt it. I doubt it, because a coalition partner would have demanded policies which I might not have liked, that my party might not have liked, and another set of difficulties I could have done without.

  Q184  Julie Morgan: Going back to ministerial appointments, looking back at them with your experience and if you had brought people in from outside much more widely, looking back do you have any regrets that there were some you did not bring in or you should have appointed?

  Sir John Major: It is difficult to re-invent the past looking back at this distance in time. I am sure at the time there were people who would have made a contribution, either in the Lords or the Commons. Looking back at this time, it would probably be invidious to name them but I am sure the answer is, yes, there would have been. I think also today, when the policy gets so much more complex, that is more so than it was then.

  Q185  Julie Morgan: What about party allegiances? Do you think that if you bring in people from outside they should be of the party allegiance of the Government?

  Sir John Major: I think they should commit themselves to collective responsibility, yes. It is a mistake that we politicians make that we believe everybody is a Conservative, a member of the Labour Party, a Liberal Democratic, or whatever, but the truth is for a lot of people who have no particularly strong political allegiance, more so these days than for a very long period of time, they vote for the party which they think might be the most competent and the most amenable; they are largely apolitical. I see no reason why people like that should not come into the Lords, but I do think they would need to commit themselves to the principle of collective responsibility in the House of Lords and not take a free ride by saying, "Yes, I will come into the House of Lords, yes I will support the Government when I think they are right, but I reserve the right to exercise my conscience in an awkward way whilst retaining my position if I think they are wrong." I think you would get a chaotic situation then.

  Q186  Julie Morgan: So you think it is possible for people to come in, completely apolitical and function successfully as a minister from outside?

  Sir John Major: I do, yes I do. I can think, and do not ask me to name them because it would embarrass lots of people, of quite a few politicians over the 30 years I have been in the House of Commons or close to it, who might have served in more than one party and who were concerned about pragmatic, good government rather than ideology. So I do think it is possible, yes. Some of them have served in rather senior positions.

  Q187  Mr Prentice: So we would have a government stuffed full of technocrats, with no ideological leaning really, but they would just kind of do the right thing?

  Sir John Major: The words "stuffed full" are rather evocative. I do not remember, Gordon, saying "stuffed full". I was thinking of the occasional people with particular skills. Do I think the government can survive with one or two people, or quite a few people, in it, who are not ideologues for their particular philosophy, most emphatically I do. Indeed I sometimes think government would be more effective if there were more pragmatists and fewer ideologues. There is a distinction I think between ideology and conviction, and I do think people need to have their convictions, but I do not think you need to have a government of ideologues, and some people who had no particular ideological bent but a pragmatic wish to serve and an intellectual and other capability to be of service, could be useful in government.

  Q188  Mr Prentice: I am just wondering if the grit in the oyster you talked about earlier could end up as Prime Minister as you ended up? I have this quote in front of me, you talking about your own regrets, and you say, "I shall regret always that I found my own authentic voice in politics, I was too conservative, too conventional, too safe, too often, too defensive, too reactive, later too often on the back foot." Just reading that quote and reflecting on it, it surprised me that you ended up where you did in Number 10, and I do not say that in an impertinent way at all.

  Sir John Major: I was referring to my time in Number 10 rather than prior to that, and I do not move away from that quote at all. That was a reflective and I hope honest view, after the event, of how things might have been different. I do not want to traipse over the problems of the 1990s again, they were there, they have gone, we have moved on, but I think you have to learn from it. There is no point denying what the problems were, or not reflecting honestly upon them. The quote you produced just now is a perfectly fair reflection of what my view was some time after I left government.

  Q189  Mr Prentice: Can I turn to the problems of 2009 because we had Ann Abraham in front of us, last week I think, talking about the Equitable Life saga, something which has been going on for years and years and years, and she bemoaned the fact that for "Parliament" you might read "Government" because of the strong whipping system, with MPs voting the party line instead of standing back and looking at the issue in the round and coming to their own conclusions about it. My question to you is this, would you like to see more free votes, not on peripheral matters but really quite big issues like Equitable Life? Is there a role for more free votes in this Parliament which you envisage?

  Sir John Major: I think within limits, yes. I think within limits there are. I mean it is a problem, that if ever a government is defeated on a major issue technically it needs to resign. In practice I think there are occasions—and we do this in terms of things like embryology—where we have free votes on really important issues. I think there may be some other issues—I do not know whether this one would fall in that category—where it might be wise to let the House of Commons have its head without a whipping system; I would not object to that.

  Q190  Mr Prentice: You were a previous Chancellor, a previous Chief Secretary, and you will be familiar—even though you spend so much time out of the country—with the history of Equitable Life. Do you think—looking at that issue in particular—there is a case for a free vote on something with the huge public expenditure ramifications that there could be?

  Sir John Major: I did say I do not know whether I can comment on that particular issue. As it happens, I may know less about Equitable Life than you may imagine; I have not particularly studied it. One of the advantages of not being in politics any more is that I do not have to pretend to have an opinion upon everything I have not studied. If I have not studied it I can say I have not studied it and not have an opinion. So I will choose to do so on this particular occasion. I do think there may be a case for rather more free votes. I think the other thing that actually is the flipside of this is, one of the problems it seems to me in government is that senior ministers, given the pressure of our political system—which is more pressurised than almost any in the world, I think—is they have very little thinking time. They do not have time to sit back and do blue skies thinking or reflect entirely afresh upon the policies to which their party is committed. They do not come and say, "I wonder whether that actually in retrospect is right". There is an idea that existed some time ago, and I think it was originally invented by Michael Palliser of the Foreign Office; he had a policy planning staff in the Foreign Office that was a sort of antibody to departmental culture, and I think David Miliband may have revived it—I am not entirely sure about that—and that (to borrow the phrase of a few minutes earlier) was intended to be the "grit in the oyster". That would be an ideal body for some of these outside experts to join. It would be quite refreshing to see a policy planning staff with the leeway to be counterintuitive within every department, so that you actually consistently get somebody within the department challenging what is being done with external help and asking: is this really right? We all know you can get caught in a tramline on policy and find it very difficult to move off it, and very little fresh thinking often is devoted to that policy. I think that sort of grit in every department would be an extremely helpful aid to policy; and it would be very useful to put policy advisers in it. We have tsars, we have envoys, we have advisers, we have political advisers, we have all sorts of things now—they are of mixed value some of them, I think—but a policy adviser attached to a unit like that with the freedom within the department to think the unthinkable and question the accepted wisdom I think would be a very useful addition to the making of good policy.

  Q191  Mr Prentice: Is that not often the role of backbenchers? I remember Tony Blair when we won that famous victory in 1997, at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, with his jacket off and his gleaming white shirt, saying to us, "Just remember you [that is Labour MPs] are our ambassadors, not our shop stewards". I remember thinking at the time, "My, you've got that wrong. If we can't tell where the Government is going off the rails no-one can". I suppose my question is this: to what extent—

  Sir John Major: How effective do you think that was in the next 10 years?

  Q192  Mr Prentice: How? In keeping us quiet?

  Sir John Major: I am sorry, I know I am here to answer questions and not ask them but I would be interested to know what you thought about that?

  Chairman: The answer would differ as to whether you said five years or 10 years, I think.

  Q193  Mr Prentice: My question is this: in most comparable democracies—and you mentioned Canada—Members of Parliament, whether it is the Liberal Party, the NDP, or the Conservatives, they meet together as a caucus and take a view on the big issues of the day; and it would be inconceivable in these comparable democracies for huge policy changes to be made because they are instructed by the leadership—which is what happens in Britain. Colleagues from Canada and Australia are just completely nonplussed when I tell them about the changes brought in by the Blair administration that were never even discussed or debated in the Parliamentary Labour Party. We never had a vote on going to war in Iraq—absolutely astonishing. Is there not a role for the parliamentary caucus—whether it is the 1922 Committee, the Parliamentary Labour Party or whatever?

  Sir John Major: I cannot answer for the Parliamentary Labour Party. I can only say in the period that I was there if the 1922 Committee did not like a policy the Chairman of the 1922 Committee would be in to see the minister concerned or the Prime Minister pretty quickly or, more likely, in to see the Chief Whip, and the Chief Whip would be in to see the Prime Minister or the minister pretty quickly. If you do not carry your party with you on a policy then there are obviously turbulent times ahead. Of course there is a role for backbenchers—it would be absurd not to say there is—there has to be; but the whole thrust of what I was trying to say earlier was to try and put Parliament in a position where the executive is more challenged than it has been in the past. I absolutely agree with the thrust of your question and I think there are many ways of doing it, some of which I suggested.

  Q194  Chairman: Can I return, as we come towards the end, to this question about the professional politician, because it is something that you picked up in what you said today and what you said in your article in The Times. We have heard a lot of it and it is obviously something that we, most of us, talk about as well. Lord Turnbull, a former Cabinet Secretary, when he came to us said, "There is a growing trend for people to come into politics more or less straight from university. They lick envelopes in Central Office, become a special adviser, on and on it goes, and by the time they are in their mid-30s they are Cabinet ministers, barely touching the sides of real life". I think we can all recognise the people that he is talking about right across politics; but it is a funny thing, is it not, because there is no other area of life where we would not demand that the people who engage in it are not professional, and a sense of devoting their life to it; politics, we say, should be different. But I notice that in the article you wrote your argument was not that these people, the people with more experience of life rather than people that I just described, should not go into government, should not become Cabinet ministers—because you talked earlier on about the skills that you need to develop through a lifetime of activity to be good at it—you say in your piece that you think these people should come in and be backbenchers; they should be the "Why?" people. I see the logic of that but, if we go down that route, with politics in the House as frustrating as you have described it, and as we all know it to be, why on earth would such people want to be doing something like that?

  Sir John Major: No, I was also talking about people coming into government, not just into the backbenches. If I failed to give you that impression let me try and correct it now. I do think there is a role to bring people into government. I would like to widen the intake into the House of Commons. I would certainly like to do that, although I understand the obvious difficulties of doing that, in getting people selected; but I do think there is a role in bringing people into government who are particularly talented.

  Q195  Chairman: But your article with Douglas Hurd says, "We have in mind professionals who have succeeded in their chosen career and have years of energy and good health ahead of them, which they could use not as ministers but as backbenchers to control the government of their country". That was your proposal?

  Sir John Major: Yes, but not instead of being ministers. Of course, we were assuming that some of them might come in as ministers; I am not excluding that at all. We would like some of them to come in as backbenchers if we can—we certainly would. That is why I advocated an alternative career structure that would give more incentive for people like that to come in. Somebody coming into the House of Commons at over 50 is not realistically going to expect a ministerial career that is going to end up in Number 10, Number 11, the Foreign Office or the Home Office; they are not going to expect that; but they certainly could come in with experience and expect to be maybe Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee or the Public Administration Committee, have a senior place in Parliament and make a proper significant contribution to the way Parliament works. That was the point we were seeking to address in that particular sentence.

  Q196  Chairman: Let me then try a different approach to it, which is: you have been pretty damning in your description of the feebleness of Parliament now, but positive about the proposals that you have to do something about it; but is not the problem that we talk endlessly about the problem of the feebleness of Parliament and the need to do something about it—and we talk about it especially now but it is not a new theme—but we have a system where the Government controls essentially the entire business of the House; reform could only come through a government deciding to change things and governments for very sensible reasons—their own reasons—do not?

  Sir John Major: Governments respond to stimuli like everybody else; indeed, we might argue that governments respond too readily to stimuli too often. I think a good deal of that stimuli could well come from the sort of reports that committees like this can produce. That is why select committees are so important. I think they have to push at that door until it opens and—if governments do not like it—continue to make the argument. I am afraid I do not believe that we should have an elected dictatorship for five years, whatever its majority is. I simply do not believe that. I think that is simply not the democratic system that I find attractive. There should be many more stresses, many more balances; and if that is inconvenient for governments, well, it is inconvenient for governments and I think they have to live with it; but you are going to have to push them. I can make speeches about it outside; I can offer evidence to you; but you are going to have to push for it inside the House of Commons. You are going to have to say, "The present situation is unsatisfactory. We, the select committee, recommend that it is changed".

  Q197  Chairman: We have been pushing—

  Sir John Major: Keep pushing!

  Q198  Chairman:— almost fruitlessly for years; but the point is, the brute reality is, governments have no interest—no self-interest—in making life more uncomfortable for themselves.

  Sir John Major: Hang on a moment, government had no interest in 1979 in introducing a select committee system, but they did. Why did they do that? They did that because they thought it was the right thing to do. Perhaps a similarly enlightened moment might come about in the future. When it does come about in the future, let us make sure the right ideas are in the ether so they can be adopted. I do not take the view that every government is automatically going to be so self-centred and so cynical that it will not try and produce a parliamentary system that will be more popular, more workable and more effective in the future.

  Q199  Kelvin Hopkins: Are there not differences between governments? Between your government and the government that followed you immediately there were considerable differences in the attitude of the Prime Minister to opposition, the attitude to strong backbenchers and strong Cabinet ministers that—whom you seemed to readily accept—but were not popular with your successor.

  Sir John Major: I am sorry, I missed the last part?

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