We are witnessing a process of political diffusion.
Our Westminster/Whitehall version of government is built on an assumption that there is a solid base of centralised power. There is a governmental machine, which controls the public policy agenda and manages the flow of legislation and the running of the bureaucratic machinery that delivers the processes of government. The direction of the machine is recharged periodically by a party, with a manifesto, winning an election and subsequently occupying all the positions of authority from which it implements its programme. Parliament forms the basis of that majority and provides a degree of scrutiny over the machine.
That’s how it normally works. But it’s beginning to look as though the model is breaking apart. There are powerful centrifugal forces at work and the normally confident central machine is audibly creaking.
Cabinet isn’t functioning as it should. Senior cabinet ministers would not normally take to the media to voice their thoughts about what should happen to public sector pay policy. That debate should be round the cabinet table. Instead the public policy debate has moved out into television studios and print media. It is happening because the Prime Minister, and Number 10, are so lacking in authority post-election.
In the absence of a clear, central control of the policy, authority is sliding outwards, notably to the pay review bodies themselves. Whereas, under the normal conventions, public policy would determine what would happen to their recommendations, the reverse will now apply – their recommendations will determine public policy.
There is little in the way of an authoritative central agenda. Normally that is set by a new government with its approved manifesto. This time it was the manifesto that was the problem. And so it has been all but junked, leaving a Queens Speech a thing of threads and patches.
In the absence of an authoritative agenda, Parliament is gaining influence at the expense of the executive. Whip power is diminished – on both sides of the House. Under normal conventions, public policy is determined within the machine and approved subsequently by Parliament. Now, both Houses of Parliament have acquired considerably greater authority and it is they who, in many key respects, will set public policy.
Brexit is going DIY. There is a City of London delegation, led by a former minister Mark Hoban, currently in Brussels seeking a post-Brexit deal on trade in financial services. This is an industry-led group talking with counterparts around the EU, attempting to shape the Brexit outcome for their sector, by pulling together agreement between key businesses which is designed to influence official negotiators in both Brussels and London.
What may prove to be a productive approach for one sector may work for others. It would not be at all surprising to see leading figures in, say, the automotive industry now attempting parallel discussions.
There is already a parallel of sorts within the pharmaceutical sector, with ministers using the letters page of the FT to promote a policy line on co-operation on drug testing.
There is a clear message emerging from business sectors doing Brexit themselves. They must question central government’s capacity, or even competence, to do it for them.
Under normal conventions, business groups would directly lobby government in the hope of shaping a public policy outcome. Now, we are seeing business groups actively shaping the policy positions themselves, with government watching on, ready, one assumes, to adopt any deal that looks promising.
This degree of political diffusion is without modern precedent. It is happening because there is an extraordinarily weak centre.
Public policy making will continue to spread out from the central machine for as long as these centrifugal forces remain in play. That carries major implications for those with an interest in where public policy leads us, and in how it impacts on those conducting business.
This is also a process that is hard to put into reverse. It is much harder to centralise power than to disperse it.
The only thing that will apply at least a brake to the process would be the re-emergence of prime ministerial authority. That isn’t looking likely any time soon.
It’s diffusion for the foreseeable future – with all its consequences.