If you work in tax you’ll know the routine. Chancellor stands up. Talks. And talks. But you just want him to sit down. You want him to sit down so that someone, somewhere will press the ‘publish’ button on the huge blog that is the gov.uk website. You can then join the rest of the profession in the first difficult task of the day: trying to figure out where HM Treasury have hidden the Budget documents this year. Once found, you print them out – and sit back briefly and imagine another world, a better world, in which a thoughtful colleague is just now hurrying towards you with a cooling towel for your forehead.
What you won’t have realised is that what is true for you is also true for the Opposition. They’ll engage a temp, hired for fast running, to rush the collection of Budget documents from the MP’s office nearest the House of Commons Chamber into the hands of the Leader of the Opposition. There’ll be a special phone available on which, hapless individual, he or she can be briefed (by text message) on what the measures really mean so as to have something, anything, intelligent to say by way of reply to the Chancellor. It surely is the toughest gig in politics.
And that’s kind of how life in Opposition is generally. When you’re in Government you have an army of civil servants to help. There is no clause in the tax code so obscure that a civil servant cannot be found who has spent her entire professional life pondering its meaning. She may even have worked up a theory! In Opposition, it’s just you. She’s not going to rush to your aid. Indeed, you’re an especially fortunate Opposition if you can afford to employ even one person to help you work up tax policy ideas – or scrutinise those of the Government du jour.
You get by, as a Shadow Exchequer Secretary, with a little help from your friends. And anyone else who happens to be passing through Parliament Square. Professional Institutes, Think Tanks, Business lobby groups, professional service firms. Even the odd blogger. They all have axes to grind – and you know this. But you trust yourself – you have no alternative – to separate the good from the bad. And when you’re trying to work up policy you need even more. You need continuity, deep expertise, water carriers who can do the unglamorous business of drafting. And you need it right across the tax code.
And one of the places you get this from is the Big Four. They can afford to second staff to you for a decent period of time. You can have confidence that – supported as they are by the enormous resources of the firm – they will be technically adept and well informed. You know that they want influence – but then that’s true of everyone. And you’re just in Opposition so you’re reassured that if you get into Government you’ll be able to get civil servants to give your policy ideas the once over.
All of this is true of this Opposition. As it was true of the last.
I say this because of a distinctly adolescent piece yesterday on the Guardian’s website. It posed as straight reportage of the size of the cash value – now there’s a tendentious assertion – of the contribution made by professional services firms. It was, in reality, a complaint about the purported ‘capture’ of national interests by business (the Dark Side being played, today, by PWC and KPMG). The fire was concentrated on Labour – despite the fact that exactly the same points could and should have been made about Oppositions generally. And as for actual evidence of ‘capture’? Nada – not even assertion.
Would I prefer a world in which the Opposition was better funded to perform the critically important task of scrutinising Government policy? I would. Indeed, I argued for it in Sir Hayden Phillips’ review . Did the Guardian call for that? It did not.
And can we all agree that scrutiny is important? We can. Who reading this blog trusts the Government du jour consistently to look after the broad public interest rather than the narrow political one? And is over 11?
‘Cui bono?’ I was asked on twitter last evening. ‘Who benefits from all of this?’
Postscript: David Gauke, the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury has, as is his wont, commented on this blog:
And that is why he is universally liked and admired.