Andrew Rawnsley has a great piece in yesterday’s Observer about how ministers are just becoming aware of the massive political risks associated with their cuts programme. But it was the passage below that struck me as the most interesting – ministers suddenly realising that all the think-tank talk of excessive waste in the public sector and in quangoes was hyped-up propaganda and that public sector workers are actually decent people with kids to care for and mortgages to pay. Who would’ve guessed it?
In the pre-election period, members of David Cameron’s senior team would privately argue that the state had become so bloated under Labour that they would find plenty of fat to cut before they hit bone. They believed quite a lot of the deficit could be mopped up through “efficiency savings”.Now they know better. It is one of the easiest cries in opposition to shout: “Cull the quangos.” That is proving hard to do even for such reflexive quango-cullers as Tories. One Conservative minister says: “At first glance, you think: that can go. Then you take another look and you find that a lot of these organisations exist for a purpose.”
Some ministers say they are finding examples of wasteful spending that can be terminated without much impact on the public. Others have gone looking for relatively pain-free savings and come back empty handed. One minister says: “I keep thinking that if I dig deep enough I will find something, but to be honest there isn’t all that much.”
Then there is the human factor. Labour tribalists won’t believe this, and the Treasury axemen won’t like it, but it is quite rare to find a minister, Conservative or Lib Dem, who relishes firing people. They are already having to confront the personal cost of cuts when making decisions about their own civil servants. One Tory minister says: “We all attacked ‘faceless bureaucrats’ when we were in opposition. They aren’t faceless anymore. They are people working in the department and they are nice people. They are people with children, people with mortgages to pay.”