Magazine article The Spectator

Axeman in Chief

Magazine article The Spectator

Axeman in Chief

Article excerpt

Francis Maude is in command of the government's cost-cutting drive - and clearly enjoying himself

After a year in government, most ministers look ten years older. Not Francis Maude. He bounds into the ante - room of his ministerial suite to greet me, wearing his customary open-necked shirt with a red check that matches the colour in his cheeks. In a confident voice, he says, 'I just need to get some things decided and then we'll be right with you.' It is more like meeting a businessman at the height of a boom than a politician in the age of austerity.

In Maude's office overlooking Horse Guards Parade, the businesslike atmosphere becomes even stronger. Phrases like 'saving money off the overhead' and 'drive prices down in procurement' tumble from his lips.

But unlike many of the politicians who use management speak, this one can claim experience of management. Maude, who is 57 and served Lady Thatcher as a minister, was managing director of Morgan Stanley from 1993 to 1997, and sat on the boards of Asda and Salomon Brothers while the Tories were in opposition. Now, as Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office, he runs the 'efficiency and reform group', with the task of saving billions of pounds.

Maude believes that what he learned in the private sector is crucial in his current role. 'I'm much more comfortable with this kind of territory. It's not intimidating.' And he says happily that the coalition has given him a whole committee of people with such knowledge. 'There are a load of ministers, both Lib Dem and Conservative, who have serious business experience.' Labour, he adds, had 'no one' with a business background - and therefore no great interest in driving down costs.

Maude worries that 'puritanism' about MPs having outside interests will deny future governments this expertise. But asked whether, under the current regime governing second jobs, he would have come back as an MP after losing his seat in 1992, he stiffens. Sensing a pitfall ahead, he stresses that the rules are 'completely fine'. The new puritans have clearly scared even this cavalier.

All this time, Maude has been rolling a £10 note in his hands; it has become so tightly wound that I worry it soon won't be legal tender, and so I change the subject to his ministerial responsibilities. Maude is minister for the 'Big Society', a grand project that the Conservatives have notoriously struggled to explain. 'People keep wanting there to be a definition, ' he says, somewhat wearily. 'I sometimes think that you can describe it but you can't define it.'

Warming to his theme, Maude ticks off what he believes constitutes the Big Society:

opening public services to non-state providers, shifting power from government to local communities and people, and social action. To his mind, all three of these ideas come together in public-service mutuals - social enter - prises owned and run by their staff.

As he discusses these mutuals, Maude's voice takes on an upbeat tone and he starts to unwind his concertinaed banknote. To him, this is the remedy to the spendthrift, work - shy culture of the public sector. With real enthusiasm, he tells me about his recent visit to one mutual, Sandwell Community Caring Trust. Handing it over to its staff, he says, has brought the average number of sick days down from 22 per employee per year to less than one; management and administration costs have gone from 22 per cent of turnover to 6 per cent. …

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