Devil of a job is too hot to handle

When the prime minister and chancellor were thrashing out a deal over pensions last month, according to Whitehall insiders, the pensions secretary John Hutton was left sitting outside the door, twiddling his thumbs for a couple of hours.

While Tony and Gordon got down to the business of deciding whether to restore the earnings link and the question of what the new retirement age should be, Hutton was left looking like a schoolboy waiting nervously outside the headmaster’s study.

Finally, he was called in to be told what they had decided. For the pensions secretary, it was a humiliation that was not unfamiliar to a few of his predecessors.

To the layman outside the Westminster village, it must all seem a little baffling. Especially as Hutton has been widely praised – by MPs at least – for being more than a competent ‘fixer’. But the truth that has emerged in the nine years that Labour has been in power is that Blair does not take the pensions secretary post nearly as seriously as he should – even though pensions reform is supposed to be one of his ‘legacy’ issues.

Six secretaries

Since Labour’s victory in 1997, there have been six secretaries of state for pensions, or social security as it used to be known.

Within a year, Harriet Harman, the first post-holder, was ignominiously sacked after squabbling with her deputy Frank Field.

Then followed a couple of ‘safe pairs of hands’, in the form of Alistair Darling and Andrew Smith. Basically, the prime minister decided he didn’t want the trouble, and postponed making the radical decisions promised when Labour swept to power nine years ago.

When Smith finally quit out of frustration in 2004, Blair installed Alan Johnson, promoting him to the Cabinet for the first time by way of reward for successfully containing the university top-up fees rebellion. He had little time to get stuck in though, and after last year’s general election and another botched reshuffle, the prime minister gave David Blunkett the job – a last-minute, unplanned shift that came about only because John Prescott didn’t want Blunkett to take another post that would diminish his own responsibilities. Then the fiasco over Blunkett’s outside interests led to his swift exit from the department.

Six shooter

The result of all this meddling and shuffling is that little has been achieved since Labour came to power in 1997.

Employers are left with the impression that the government doesn’t really take the pensions issue seriously. And let’s face it, if Blair did, at some point he would have put his favourite enforcer and ‘attack dog’ John Reid in the job. Reid, now at the Home Office, has done six different Cabinet jobs in as many years. Surely he deserves a shot at pensions as well.

Six of the best

The situation at the Department of Trade and Industry has not been any better. It, too, has had six different secretaries of state in the nine years Labour has been in power. Remember Margaret Beckett? The short spell that Peter Mandelson had there? Then Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt, Alan Johnson and now Alistair Darling.

A lame joke circulating around Westminster is that whenever Darling takes over a department, it seems to disappear without trace for a couple of years. Until he became transport secretary, for example, we had a public transport crisis, chaos on our roads and big car firms going bust. I doubt that these things really did stop happening under Darling, but he does have the knack of making them so boring that nobody can be bothered to write about them.

Employment and workplace issues are supposed to be important for the government, but the current impression is that Blair does not really care or believe in the future of a trade and industry department.

In some ways, the ministry is in permanent conflict, being responsible for consumer issues as well as representing big business. Blair may have been wiser to have split it up a long time ago.

The DTI always seems overstaffed. It has more than 30 staff in its media and communications departments, for example, yet the far mightier Treasury has a mere half a dozen press officers to cope with virtually everything that happens in government.

There was also the farce after last year’s general election when some bright spark – Lord Birt, the former Number 10 ‘blue skies thinker’ – came up with the idea of changing the DTI’s name to the Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry (DPEI). Talk about the emperor’s new clothes. Luckily, Alan Johnson saw sense and blocked the move, pointing out it would be nicknamed ‘Dippy’ or ‘PENIS’ by wags.

In the latest government reshuffle, Charles Clarke decided he would rather return to the backbenches than go to the DTI. Even when Blair’s eyes went watery and red in the Downing Street garden, virtually begging Clarke to stay on, it wasn’t enough. What are employers supposed to think when Blair offers the DTI as an afterthought, a consolation prize to damaged MPs?

I think it was Harold Macmillan who said of his government changes: “When I reshuffle my pack, I make sure I leave out the jokers.”

It is a shame that when Blair has been appointing his DTI and pensions secretaries in the past, he hasn’t always followed that advice.

For previous David Cracknell articles


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