After thirteen years of mistakes and economic disaster, it is refreshing to hear a Minister say “Sorry” when he or she has presided over a mistake. It is also reassuring that the mistakes have not been on the scale of the Boom/Bust errors of Labour.
One apology may be endearing. A couple may be welcome. When they come thick and fast more people say they would prefer Ministers avoid the mistakes in the first place than parade their apologies on the media.
So what has gone wrong? Why have Caroline Spelman, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and William Hague all had to say sorry in the last few weeks?
Each case is different. Caroline Spelman put her name to a set of proposals for the forests which the whole Cabinet approved. She then discovered that the opponents put round a verison of her scheme which was unpopular before she mobilised support. She apologised for misreading the mood of the electorate, and admitted her own misjudgement. It was clearly a Ministerial mistake which her colleagues failed to see in advance or to help her avoid.
At the other end of the spectrum, Liam Fox apologised when officials sent emails to fire members of the armed services. I am quite sure Liam himself did not ask for the redundancies to be made like that, and he was clearly very unhappy on learning what had happened. He had to apologise for other peoples’ insensitive errors. If you wish to sustain any criticism of the Minister you have to suggest he should have watched over a level of detail in implementation that no Minister would normally get involved in or have reason to suppose the implementation would miscarry. You could also query the policy decision to sack soldiers still on active service as a general issue, but that is a different matter.
We are not yet sure why the Foreign office was slow to get transport into Libya to pick up UK citizens. Was the Minister himself slow to act and decide, or did officials fail to organise transport in a timely way though this had been requested? Given the sensitivity and the media interest, should the Minister have been more active in following up the policy decision?
Michael Gove had to apologise for failing to consult enough people when he replaced the Schools for the Future programme with investments in school buildings which he thinks will offer better value to taxpayers. We do not know if he was advised to slow down and consult more widely, or if he was let down by the advice. The Judge did find that he was entitled to make the decision he made, but criticised the process. The case had been brought by some angry Labour authorities who saw scope for challenge.
Each one was different. The only common current is they each illustrate the need for Ministers to involve themselves in the detail as well as the main decision. A good decision, like finding a cheaper way of building new schools, can generate ill will if you do not follow due process, and if you do not get out the message that the aim is not the end of all school building, but more school building for the money.