Magazine article Management Today

The MT Diary: Bundred Cuts to the Truth; Last Quango in London; Doghouse Days Await George Osborne

Magazine article Management Today

The MT Diary: Bundred Cuts to the Truth; Last Quango in London; Doghouse Days Await George Osborne

Article excerpt

Over the summer, battle lines are being drawn up ahead of the election, which must come next May - or earlier, if Peter Mandelson decides Labour will do better if the party fights it with another leader. One presumes he'll tell the prime minister when a vacancy has been created, but you never know.

The Broonites in the Downing Street bunker have evidently decided that the clear blue water they need between Gordon and Dave is on public spending. Labour, they endlessly say, will keep on 'investing'; the Tories will cut, and cut again.

The waters have been muddied, however, by an inconvenient truth - that Labour's own plans already envisage cuts in investment during the next parliament. So Brown's claims sound implausible, and it was hard to find anyone at this year's summer parties who doesn't believe that cuts will be needed as soon as the economy picks up. Not even growth at 0% will be achievable.

My successor (but one) at the Audit Commission, Steve Bundred, did nothing for his honours-list chances with some clear-sighted words on the subject in the Observer. He argued for a public-sector pay freeze, and for including the NHS in any cuts exercise. As Frankie Howerd might have said: Isn't he bold?

But most people think it's only common sense, and that it's a mistake for Cameron to ring-fence such a huge budget. Not everything the NHS does is in the life-and-death category, after all.

So there's an air of unreality about the political debate this summer. Public opinion is way ahead of our leaders, as the BA unions' offer of a pay cut vividly shows. Radio 4's Today Programme interview with the pilots' rep was a gem. The BBC folk simply couldn't believe that he was accepting the need for a pay cut, to save the company. Wouldn't happen in Broadcasting House, of course. The licence fee goes up and up, and it's all theirs, they argue, and ITV and Channel 4 can go hang. (There's a nettle ready for the Tories to grasp, and I suspect they will.)

When challenged on what they would in fact do to put the public finances back on track, our leaders have decided to take refuge in two safe tropes: that they will cut waste, and lay waste to quangos. Hands up those in favour of waste? There, I thought so. And who will defend our quangos? No-one, I see. Even though some of them, such as the Audit Commission, save money by hunting out inefficiencies.

Whenever one hears these two lines trotted out, you know the party concerned has nothing useful to say. If it were so easy to separate the wheat of 'front-line services' from the chaff of 'idle bureaucrats', Lady Thatcher would have done so long ago. …

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