The most important domestic political event of the week was not the Labour party conference. It was the mess over the scrapping of the west coast mainline franchise, which was awarded only in August. The episode is bad news for the government on all counts. Financially, there is an initial cost to taxpayers of at least £40m; politically, it fuels claims of incompetence. The “omnishambles” jibes levelled over the spring budget may have meant little to most people, but this further example adds to a sense that the government does not know what it is doing.
Perhaps the most serious outcome may be the least visible: internally, in the impact on relations between ministers and civil servants. In a speech to the Institute for Government on Tuesday, cabinet office minister Francis Maude was blunt in expressing his frustrations with some civil servants for not implementing ministerial decisions. He gave no examples and many officials are critical of him. Neither he, nor anyone else, knew what was about to come.
No civil servant would, however, dispute that the latest episode is very damaging for the civil service because it goes to the core of its claims to be professional and competent. Philip Rutnam, the permanent secretary at the transport department, admits there was “a lack of good process and a lack of proper quality assurance” in assessing the bids’ risks—a pretty basic error.
The department has reacted by scrapping the franchise, setting up inquiries and suspending three officials. It could have done no less. But awkward questions remain about lines of accountability. Civil servants are being blamed for their professional errors. But should ministers have questioned their assessments more closely?
There is now a great risk of losing confidence in the civil service. The transport department has to show that officials are paying the price for any errors and that lessons have been learned. Meanwhile, leading civil servants such as Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake must demonstrate to ministers and the public that Whitehall is competent and that the reform plan they announced in June will improve performance.
Peter Riddell is director of the Institute for Government