TOAll governments make mistakes, but each one makes mistakes in their own way. The ignominious story of his follies was well told in The errors of Our governments, the excellent compendium of the worst fiascos of the last decades written by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King. It is a story that has the reader crying with laughter at the sheer stupidity of so many bad decisions before screaming in horror at the price. Monumental fiascos perpetrated by conservatives include the ERM debacle, the poll tax, and the personal pension scandal. The Labor column of the Shame Balance includes the Millennium Dome and the scammer magnet created by individual learning accounts. Under governments of varying complexions, we have seen a pitiful succession of ignorant and / or vain ministers squandering billions of pounds and handing the bill for their failures to the taxpayer.
It is fair to say that this is not an exclusively British vice. Witness the terrible mess the EU has gotten into with Covid vaccines. Just because others act sadly does not mean that we should shrug our shoulders and tolerate it when things go very badly on this side of the Canal.
Unfortunately Professor King is no longer with us, but Professor Crewe might consider producing an updated edition of his chronicle of the fools to include the government of Boris Johnson. It is making a very strong bid to become the most error-prone regime of the modern era.
The test and trace program is worth a great chapter on its own. This staggeringly expensive plan was recently described by Nick Macpherson, who used to be the highest-ranking official at the Treasury, as the “the most wasteful and inept public spending program of all time ”. That’s quite a compliment when there are so many other contenders for the title. That is the gold medal in the fiascolympics.
A heartbreaking report from the all-party public accounts committee concluded that a program that is consuming colossal amounts of taxpayer money could not target “a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic ”. The promise under which the £ 37bn plan was established, which would avoid the need for another lockdown, has been broken twice. Among other failures, he has never met his goal of turn over all face-to-face tests within 24 hours and many of its contact trackers went inactive last year even as the virus got out of control.
One problem with such large numbers is that they can stun the brain so much that they numb on impact; £ 37 billion is more than the annual amount we spend on primary and pre-primary education. It’s three times the cost of the high-throughput vaccination program. It’s over £ 1,000 for every working-age adult in the UK. To put it in a way that Boris Johnson could understand, with that amount of money he could commission Carrie-approved renovations of the Downing Street flat 20,000 times more.
Dido Harding, the conservative fellow in charge, protests that a built-from-scratch scheme has generated a huge increase in testability. True enough. It’s hard to spend such large sums and end up with nothing to show for it.
The fundamental problem has not been in the tests, but in the tracking. The ability to perform tests must be combined with a reliable system to then identify the contacts of the infected and ensure that those who need to quarantine do so. This is still a very live issue. Even with the vaccination program, the relaxation of restrictions is expected to lead to a resurgence of the infection. Most experts anticipate the new eruption of Covid hot spots. Containment will be vitally dependent on a regimen that is successful in both testing and tracking.
A significant aspect of this story is the big decisions with vast spending implications that are made blindly by clueless ministers in a state of total panic. Johnson boasted that Britain would have a “world” program when neither he nor anyone around him had the faintest idea how to fulfill that promise. To the extent that there was a pre-existing ability to track infection when Britain was hit by the pandemic, it was within the NHS and with public health officials working for local government. Rather than build on that experience, the government opted for a top-down scheme of its own design. Local authorities, using staff who know their own patch in a way that no one in a call center hundreds of miles away ever will, have proven to be much more effective when they have been involved in tracking infections. But they were largely removed from the program by a government that thought it knew better but understood little.
The NHS “Test and Trace” badge is an insult to the health service and a fraud to the public. The scheme is a tangle of programs outsourced mainly to companies. It is sprinkling cash at management consultants, some of whom bill taxpayers at a dazzling rate of £ 6,600 a day. Conservative ministers fell into the fallacy of thinking that something is destined to be good if it is expensive and provided by the private sector. The government was quick to sign more than 400 agreements with some 200 different suppliers, most of those contracts awarded directly rather than tendered.
There is growing evidence, despite ministerial efforts to keep it hidden, of the circumvention of the usual safeguards designed to prevent corruption and ensure profitability. A surprising number of contracts for protective equipment were awarded to friends and contacts of ministers, parliamentarians, peers and advisers on a “VIP track” where offers were 10 times more likely to be rewarded with business.
In any other line of work, wasting money on a colossal scale would lead to immediate resignations or layoffs. In the history of government mistakes, the buck has often whizzed through Westminster and Whitehall without stopping at anyone’s desk. Professors Crewe and King held that the sacred doctrine of ministerial responsibility is a myth. Ministers can sometimes resign when caught in a scandal or a lie, but almost no one quits for wasting public money or presiding over policy howlers. That’s even less likely now, given the Johnson administration’s notoriously arrogant attitude toward accountability standards.
The worst that the most egregious ministerial bunglers can hope for is to be silenced or gently moved to a different department when a cabinet shakeup occurs. Incompetence, even the most repeated, is almost never punishable by instant job loss. Out of respect for the remarkable survival of the secretary of education, I am going to give this rule a name and baptize it Williamson’s Law.
However, conservatives would be unwise to assume that there will be no pushback. After an unusual period of politics, during which a conservative government has spent cash as if there is no tomorrow, the universe is returning to take on a more familiar shape. Ministers are spending an increasing amount of their airtime to justify spending cuts. They want to get a part of the international aid budget. Health workers are furious and have the majority of the public on their side, after the government recommended a cut in real terms of their wages. There will be much more of this to come. Whenever there is a spending cut, ministers will defend it with their usual arguments about affordability and not piling up debt on future generations. This has worked for conservatives in the past, but is far less persuasive for an administration with a history of wasting epic amounts of money. Opponents now have the power to respond that the government could keep its promises to the world’s poor and do the right thing on the part of the nation’s health workers had it not spent so many billions on unfulfilled programs and contracts. of Covid that enriched their friends.
Rishi Sunak likes to tell his Conservative colleagues that his party’s reputation for fiscal discipline has been his most critical electoral weapon against Labor. Without it, he argues, conservatives will be in fundamental trouble. The Chancellor is not wrong. His party has always invited voters to view them as careful custodians of the public purse and Labor as reckless spenders, which has often rewarded the Conservatives at the polls. Stripped of that reputation, they are much more naked before the electorate. For his opponents, “Tory waste” offers a track with the potential to turn out to be very fruitful. The biters bite.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism