Whoever wins the next general election, they will have to make some tough choices about public spending. Will they dare look very close to home though?
In late 1914 when Britain ruled much of the world and was fighting a world war, there were a total of 49 ministers. Gordon Brown’s government currently has 119 ministers – an increase of 143%.
Some of the growth is for reasons most people across most parties would support, such as the creation of the National Health Service resulting in the creation of some new roles. But those areas of ‘consensus growth’ are relatively small, and to an extent are offset by the decline in the number of posts required by having an Empire.
At the Cabinet level, those two trends have largely balanced out, with the Cabinet growing by only two. But lower down the ministerial food chain, there has been a massive explosion in the number of posts – frequently driven by the need for posts to use as patronage in internal party control, and by the status symbol that attaches to the number of ministers a department has.
Although earlier this week David Cameron talked about cutting the costs of government, he hasn’t committed himself to reducing the number of ministers. Indeed, with his pledge to cut the number of MPs, his policies would produce a Parliament proportionately even more swayed by ministerial patronage than the current one.
Cutting the number of ministers wouldn’t just be about saving money (welcome though that would be), nor about leading by example to the public sector when Cabinet members lecture others on saving money (appropriate though that would be), it would also force some hard thinking about just how much power Whitehall really still has to cling on to.