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The record-beating cost to the taxpayer of Boris Johnson’s wasteful government | Andrew Rawnsley


All governments foul up, but each fouls up in its own special way. The inglorious history of their follies was well told in The Blunders of Our Governments, the bumper compendium of the worst fiascos of recent decades written by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King. It is an account that has the reader crying with laughter at the sheer stupidity of so many bad decisions before crying out with horror at the cost. Monumental fiascos perpetrated by the Tories include the ERM debacle, the poll tax and the personal pensions scandal. The Labour column of the balance sheet of shame includes the Millennium Dome and the magnet for fraudsters created by individual learning accounts. Under governments of many different complexions, we have seen a sorry succession of ignorant and/or vainglorious ministers squandering billions of pounds and handing the bill for their failures to the taxpayer.

It is fair to say that this is not a uniquely British vice. Witness the terrible mess the EU has got into over vaccinations against Covid. Others performing woefully doesn’t mean we should shrug and tolerate it when things go grossly wrong on this side of the Channel.

Professor King is sadly no longer with us, but Professor Crewe might think about producing an updated edition of their chronicle of fools to include Boris Johnson’s government. It is making a very strong bid to be the most blunder-prone regime of the modern era.

The test and trace programme is worth a big chapter all to itself. This staggeringly expensive scheme was recently described by Nick Macpherson, who used to be the most senior civil servant at the Treasury, as the “most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”. That is quite an accolade when there are so many other contenders for the title. That’s the gold medal at the fiascolympics.

An eviscerating report by the all-party public accounts committee has concluded that a programme that is consuming colossal amounts of taxpayers’ money could not point to “a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic”. The promise on which the £37bn scheme was set up – that it would prevent the need for another lockdown – has been broken twice. Among other failures, it has never met its target to turn around all face-to-face tests within 24 hours and many of its contact tracers spent last year sitting idle even as the virus raged out of control.

A problem with numbers this large is that they can so boggle the brain that they numb the shock; £37bn is more than the annual sum that we spend on primary and pre-primary education. It is three times the cost of the high-performing vaccination programme. It is more than £1,000 for each working-age adult in the UK. To put it in a way that Boris Johnson might understand, with that kind of money he could order Carrie-approved refurbishments of the Downing Street flat 20,000 times over.

Dido Harding, the Tory peer in charge, protests that a scheme built from scratch has delivered a huge increase in testing capacity. True enough. It is difficult to spend such vast sums and end up with nothing to show for it.

The fundamental problem has not been in testing, but with tracing. The ability to test needs to be matched with a reliable system for then identifying the contacts of the infected and ensuring that those who need to quarantine do so. This is still very much a live issue. Even with the vaccination programme, the relaxation of restrictions is expected to lead to a resurgence of infection. Most experts anticipate the fresh eruption of Covid hotspots. Containment will vitally depend on a regime that is successful at both testing and tracing.

A significant aspect of this story is big decisions with vast spending implications being made in a blind rush by clueless ministers in a total funk. Mr Johnson made his boast that Britain would have a “world-beating” programme when neither he nor anyone around him had the foggiest idea how to deliver on that promise. In so much as there was pre-existing capacity for tracking infection when Britain was hit by the pandemic, it lay within the NHS and with public health officials working for local government. Rather than tap into that expertise, the government went for a top-down scheme of its own spatchcocked devising. Local authorities, using staff who know their own patch in a way someone in a call centre hundreds of miles away never will, have proved much more effective when they have been involved in tracing infection. But they were largely cut out of the programme by a government that thought it knew best even though it understood little.

The NHS “Test and Trace” badging is an insult to the health service and a fraud on the public. The scheme is a tangled web of programmes mainly outsourced to companies. It is spraying cash at management consultants, some billing the taxpayer at the eye-popping rate of £6,600 a day. Tory ministers fell into the fallacy of thinking that something is bound to be good if it is costly and provided by the private sector. The government rushed to sign more than 400 deals with about 200 different suppliers, the majority of those contracts being directly awarded rather than put out to tender.

More and more evidence is coming to light, despite ministerial efforts to keep it hidden, of the circumvention of the usual safeguards designed to prevent corruption and ensure value for money. A startling number of contracts for protective equipment were awarded to friends and contacts of ministers, MPs, peers and advisers on a “VIP track” where bids 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 firings. In the history of government blunders, the buck has often gone whizzing through Westminster and Whitehall without ever stopping at anyone’s desk. Professors Crewe and King contended that the hallowed doctrine of ministerial accountability is a myth. Ministers might sometimes resign when caught in a scandal or a lie, but almost no one quits for squandering public money or presiding over policy howlers. That is even less likely now, given the Johnson government’s notoriously cavalier attitude towards norms of accountability.

The worst that the most egregious ministerial bunglers can expect is to be quietly dropped or gently moved to a different department when a cabinet reshuffle comes around. Incompetence, even of the most repeated kind, is almost never punished by instant job loss. As a mark of respect for the remarkable survival of the education secretary, I am going to give this rule a name and christen it Williamson’s Law.

Yet Tories would be unwise to assume that there will not be any blowback. After a period of unusual politics, during which a Conservative government has splashed around cash like there is no tomorrow, the universe is bending back into a more familiar shape. Ministers are spending an increasing amount of their airtime having to justify spending reductions. They want to take a chunk out of the international aid budget. Health workers are furious, and have most of the public in their corner, after the government recommended a real-terms cut to their salaries. There will be much more of this to come. Whenever there is a spending cut, ministers will defend it with their habitual arguments about affordability and not heaping debt on future generations. This has worked for the Tories in the past, but it is much less persuasive from an administration with a record of throwing away epic amounts of money. Opponents are now empowered to riposte that the government could make good on its promises to the world’s poor and do right by the nation’s health workers if it had not squirted away so many billions on programmes that failed to deliver and Covid contracts that enriched their chums.

Rishi Sunak likes to tell Tory colleagues that their party’s reputation for fiscal discipline has been their most critical electoral weapon against Labour. Without it, he argues, the Conservatives will be in fundamental trouble. The chancellor is not wrong. His party has always invited the voters to see them as careful custodians of the public purse and Labour as reckless spenders, which has frequently rewarded the Conservatives at the ballot box. Stripped of that reputation, they are much more naked before the electorate. For their opponents, “Tory waste” offers a theme with the potential to become very fruitful. The biters bit.

Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer





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