So, now we know who are the crew members of SS Scottish Mist as it chugs off into heavy seas. Rather more midshipmen and cabin boys than one would like to see, and several passengers. Captain Brown is on the bridge, his telescope firmly clamped to his bad eye. “Full taxation ahead, Mr Darling” he cries. “Pile on more regulation” he shouts down the tubes.
The interesting question now, is who will walk the plank first? Most money will be on Harriet Harman – that unfortunate disconnect between brain and mouth has earned her a public rebuke already, and the ship is barely out of port.
I think it will be Digby Jones. The new Minister for Trade and Investment has strong views in favour of deregulation of business, simplified taxation, and the encouragement of wealth creation and entrepreneurship, and equally strong views against political correctness and unnecessary health and safety restrictions and the like. He is a strong advocate of a sound basic education and is scathing about the number of British-born people who emerge from our schools unable to read or write properly.
None of this, on the face of it, fits very well in a New Labour government whose ten years of power have seen more regulation, more, and more complex taxation, centrist control over every aspect of life, and the triumph of targets over learning in schools.
Gordon Brown promises change. He has yet to specify in what areas this change will come, but it is hard to see that much of it will address Digby Jones’s most obvious concerns.
Chancellor Darling is unlikely to set about undoing the massive increase in tax and the complexity of taxation which his master has spent a decade building up – even if he dared to try, his course for the foreseeable future has been largely set by his predecessor.
Independent-minded though John Hutton is (and he is one of the few in the Cabinet to have expressed public disagreement with Brown in the past) it is hard to see him making headway in the reduction of regulation, even if his job title includes the words “Regulatory Reform”. We are all assuming that the reform in question involves diminution and relaxation of regulation, but since Brown has been personally behind most of the accretion of regulation in the past decade, this is not to be taken for granted.
Transport is obviously not too high a priority if Brown has given it to Ruth Kelly, famous for doing sod all (albeit very intellectually) in her previous departments, so industry isn’t going to get its arteries cleared any time soon.
I do not see the tide turning on health and safety and all the mountain of petty restrictions and reporting obligations which we have seen in the last decade. Too many civil servants have carved themselves jobs for life putting them all in place (indeed, much of Brown’s apparent success in generating employment has been in the creation of unnecessary jobs like that for otherwise unemployable state servants).
And Lord Adonis remains on board in education, so we can kiss goodbye to any idea that New Labour is going to remedy the last ten years’ worth of neglect in schools, neglect, that is of the sound learning of basic skills – I am sure we will get lots of expensive new buildings, streams of directives and endless fidding with the exam structure, but no better literacy or numeracy.
All in all, it is hard to see what New Labour has to offer Digby Jones. One can see what he has to offer New Labour – grounded common sense, the business experience otherwise entirely lacking in this government, gravitas and the ear of business at all levels – but how long can he put up with the certainty that nothing of substance will happen?
What are the possible reasons for the appointment? If Brown just wanted to make a splash with his appointment, he has succeeded – Jones’s appointment has won more surprised plaudits and attacks than that of any other post-holder. That much achieved, Brown might let the initiative quietly wither, as he has done with so many trumpeted (and usually expensive) initiatives in the past.
We can ignore the possibility that this is just a put-up job – “I will give you a peerage and fancy job title if you sit quietly going through the motions and keep your trap shut”. Brown is not above that, but Jones has no need of it on that basis, and has genuine convictions and the energy to want to put them into practice – indeed, the combination of convictions and practicality is another respect in which Jones is unique in a New Labour Government.
Perhaps Gordon Brown genuinely hopes to bring change in the areas which Digby Jones is passionate about. Leave aside the incongruity of the words “Gordon Brown” and “genuinely” in the same sentence, could it happen?
I fear not. I see Digby Jones poling up with a well-argued and particularised case for removing tax and red-tape burdens to promote business, and investment in business, and being quietly ignored. Even if that is not Gordon Brown’s present intention, (that is, giving hm credit for actually intending the best) I just don’t see the old spots changing on this leopard. Taxing and regulating are habits Brown will not be able to kick.
Knowing Digby Jones (I don’t know him, although I did meet him a couple of times 20 years or so ago; I mean knowing what his expressed views are) he will voice his disquiet and disappointment. He cannot do that publicly from within government, so he will leave. Jones is a big man in more ways than one. I hope the splash is as big as the splash made on his appointment.