Voices: These are the five words that expose Boris Johnson’s government

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Kit Malthouse is not being entirely accurate when he says any government decision is ‘above his pay grade’  (AFP/Getty)
Kit Malthouse is not being entirely accurate when he says any government decision is ‘above his pay grade’ (AFP/Getty)

Shirkers of the UK, unite and celebrate: it appears you have representation in the highest office. One of your own has risen into government and now sits in the cabinet.

I speak of Kit Malthouse, minister for crime and policing, who when questioned earlier this week about the likelihood of emergency measures to tackle the cost of living crisis being snuck into the Queen’s Speech at the last minute, deflected with the most pathetic get-out clause ever uttered by a third rate middle manager – “it’s above my pay grade”.

It might have been thrown out as self-protection mechanism in the middle of a heated interview, but that sentence still says a lot. Those five words flip this government over and expose its underbelly: to me it shows that at the heart of operations, there is absolutely no sense of shared responsibility.

After reading this column, someone is going to seek me out on Twitter and lambast me for what follows. They will say I should stop wasting my time unpicking every little remark a member of the government makes and stretching its meaning.

They will say I should spend my time writing about the “real problems” in the country or – more likely – within the opposition (the real problems being whatever is specifically exercising them that week). But they will be wrong, because language and how we use it always matters – particularly when those choosing their words so poorly are in a position of power.

Malthouse clearly doesn’t think he holds much power, though. Most of the important decisions are apparently taken over his head. He seems to have forgotten that every member of the cabinet bears collective ministerial responsibility for all the decisions taken by the government.

That is the purpose of a cabinet: to pull together talents, to share the burden of power, to make better decisions together. The culture of collective responsibility also dictates that every member of the cabinet should publicly support the government’s policies and platform even if privately they object; each member takes personal ownership of the decisions the group makes.

So by definition, Malthouse is not being entirely accurate when he says any government decision is “above his pay grade”. He might not be party to last-minute Budget tweaks, but nevertheless, those decisions are well within the remit of the job that he is paid to do on behalf of his constituents. The question asked of him by a journalist wasn’t just topical and relevant, but pertained to his own responsibilities.

I suspect this linguistic slip wasn’t a fudging of words to dodge an unwelcome question at all, or at least not solely. His remarks about his own impotence on such a major issue of the day reveal how this government really works: no culture of collective decision making, but a command and control power structure, a figurehead (or maybe three) at the top calling the shots, with a cabinet of flunkies appointed around them to shill the message as required.

The shift towards a presidential, rather than collaborative, model of government predates Boris Johnson’s premiership by some decades. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were obviously powerful figures who began to shift the culture of British democracy away from cabinet government, towards a system in which voters elect a charismatic leader who then finds allies from within his or her party to form a government. But the pace of this change has accelerated rapidly since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

When Johnson won the Conservative Party leadership, and later secured another term of government for his party in the 2019 general election, he had no choice but to choose a cabinet that would unilaterally back his “Get Brexit Done” manifesto pledges. He found a group of willing volunteers, many of whom were lacking the calibre and experience previously assumed to be required to enter the top offices of state. And he ran the team with a command structure. Is this a blip, or confirmation that we now run a form of presidential politics in Westminster?

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Good decisions are not made this way. Successful and sustainable policy requires serious discussion, reflection and challenge. A group of nodding dogs are not going to steer a clear course through a time of high threat. We saw exactly that in the government’s mishandling of the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, and we’re seeing it again as Johnson’s ministers – including Malthouse – downplay the severity of the cost of living crisis.

Depressingly, politicians such as Malthouse – who has decades of political experience and many connections outside Westminster to draw on – seem to have accepted this is just part of the job now. Participation is about climbing the greasy pole and swallowing the message. Finding oneself close to power is enough, rather than embracing with confidence and using the powers invested in them by the electorate.

At the next general election, the coverage of hustings and opinion polls will present the decision we all make at the ballot box as a binary choice: Johnson or Starmer (or, if Beergate takes him down, his successor). It’s not. Who we actually vote for, their character and experience, matters as much as their party.

If we elect politicians who are too weak, self-interested or lazy to challenge their own leadership, then we get an administration that is ineffective, creates poor policy and can’t face up to the complexity and sensitivity of today’s global politics.

To break this cycle of government-by-shill, we have to look beyond the leadership and demand a return to collective responsibility, where no member of the cabinet would dream of claiming, in public, that a crucial part of their job is above their pay grade.

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