THE CITY GRUMP
The incredibly successful driving force behind the vaccine rollout, Kate Bingham, in an interview with the Telegraph this week, has given us a frightening reveal into the horror that is Whitehall.
I suppose I should be pleased, having written the City Grump, “Whitehall: The self-preserving, incompetent master of us all” but I actually feel quite sick as it means there is little hope for the future of our Country as the latest Prime Minister, supposedly under pressure from all and sundry, keeps U-turning away.
Kate Bingham’s interview is ahead of her book, “The Long Shot: The Inside Story of the Race to Vaccinate Britain”. In it she writes:
Bingham continues, “process apparently mattered more than outcomes” (again horribly confirming Lord Crowther-Hunt and Peter Kellner’s findings in their 1980 book on Whitehall – plus ca change). Among civil servants, the Cabinet Office was the “bane of our existence”, and communications teams were “irresponsible…unfocused and patchily competent”.
The Bingham interview then dives into the specifics, starting with the National Audit Office’s incompetence. There was “a near total ignorance” about what vaccine manufacturing actually entailed and a NAO investigation that began two months after the VTF launched was “a foolish and expensive joke”, which “wasted time and resources”.
Meanwhile at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ( BEIS), which hosted the VTF, “there was a spreadsheet being filled out twice a week to send to the Cabinet Office, so they “knew what we were doing”. It was literally nonsense. It was the process…. The fact it was bollocks going in, and whoever was reading it didn’t understand it, didn’t seem to matter”.
And then we come to that apotheosis of the Whitehall wasteland, otherwise known as the Treasury. To quote from the Telegraph interview:
“It wasn’t until the Summer-when Bingham attended her first Downing Street meeting-that she realised just how much the bureaucratic system could obfuscate work. The VTF had submitted a business case and initial budget to the Treasury, but when she asked the then Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, why approval had not been granted, he had “no idea” what she was referring to. “I was pretty incredulous. Even within No. 10 , there was a real indifference about what was going on with vaccines. It wasn’t a high priority.” Unless she had insisted on directly reporting to the Prime Minister, she “probably wouldn’t have succeeded, because there would have been too many people in the chain telling us we couldn’t do it”.
Bingham’s nightmare experience of the reality of the dead hand of Whitehall is just a repeat of what Lord Crowther-Hunt and Peter Kellner exposed in their book of 42 years ago, “The Civil Servants: An Enquiry into Britain’s Ruling Class”.
It looked, for a moment, that Truss and Kwarteng totally understood this disgraceful state of affairs as Kwarteng immediately sacked the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, a 30 year lifer, Sir Tom Scholar, and let it be known he would be replaced by an outsider, Antonia Romeo. Yesterday we learned that Truss has buckled under pressure, overruled Kwarteng and insisted that another Treasury lifer (a mere 20 years worth), James Bowler, be appointed as Scholar’s replacement. As one insider, when talking to the Telegraph, said “There’s been a revolt in the Treasury. They’ve basically turned round and said: “ We won’t work with Romeo”. There’s a very definite hierarchy and Romeo simply doesn’t meet the criteria for career progression there…… If the mini-budget hadn’t gone down so badly, they (Truss and Kwarteng) may have got away with it. But the Treasury has turned around and said you’re going to upset the markets even more if you appoint an outsider. The orthodoxy has prevailed. People at the Treasury are cockahoop”. In other words, if you haven’t been brought up at the Treasury and schooled in its psyche, we are not about to let you in here to boss us about.
Kate Bingham’s devastating portrayal of Whitehall as a wasteland of droids and jobsworths and yet again the lack of backbone from the politicians continues to ensure we are left to rot under a panacea of cosy ineptitude. Ruritania beckons.
The City Grump has spent some 40 years in the City of London. He started as a stockbroker’s analyst but after some years he decided he was too grumpy to continue with the sell side of things so he moved to the buy side and became a fund manager for the next 20 years, selling his own business in the 1990s. Post the millennium, he found himself in turn chairing a stockbroker, a financial PR company, and an Exchange. He still keeps his hand in, chairing a brace of VCTs and investing personally in start-ups. The City Grump’s publications are available here.