11 January 2024

There’s more to the Horizon scandal than Ed Davey’s incompetence


Despite it all, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Sir Ed Davey. It was all going so well. After years in the doldrums, the Liberal Democrats had won a hearing in middle England and seem (seemed) poised to seize a clutch of seats off the Conservatives in the so-called Blue Wall. Davey’s penchant for cringe stunts was endearing, as such tactics are when your party is on the upswing.

And then, all of a sudden… the curtain fell. ITV’s hit drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, thrust the Horizon computer scandal back into the spotlight – and, in consequence, Davey’s conduct as Post Office minister during the Coalition. 

All of a sudden, the Lib Dem leader, so recently keen for the spotlight, is hiding from the House of Commons. Victims of the Post Office, now finally given full voice by the media, are calling for his resignation; 5000 people have signed a petition urging that he be stripped of his knighthood.

One doesn’t need to be a partisan Tory with an eye on those blue-yellow marginals to find a measure of schadenfreude in all this. Sir Ed is one of those politicians fond of striking the sanctimonious tone so often employed by minor parties with little prospect of having to actually govern. He has very often demanded the resignation of others for similar failings.

Alas for him, he forgot that this is a dangerous approach when your party has recently made the tactical error of entering government and actually trying to make a difference – i.e. given you and your colleagues the chance to make mistakes that matter.

So it’s quite right that Sir Ed’s role in the scandal be scrutinised, along with all the other politicians of all parties who held the Post Office brief as the Horizon scandal unfolded.

However, it is nonetheless also worth listening to what they have to say in their defence. To explain something is not to excuse it, of course. But if we want to prevent something like this happening again, it won’t be enough simply to sacrifice a flock of scapegoats and move on.

Davey’s line is that the Post Office lied to him, and he believed them. George Freeman, as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for life Sciences, later told the House of Commons that a forensic third-party investigation had found no evidence of flaws in the Horizon software (the investigators had been hired by the Post Office). 

Meanwhile Margot James, another subsequent holder of the brief, told Channel 4 by way of explanation that she had only held the portfolio for 18 months, and it had been just one of an eclectic range of responsibilities.

Talking to people over the past few days, I’ve heard a common story of bureaucratic inertia and legalistic overcaution. Even after the postmasters won their settlement with the Post Office in 2019, and there was clearly a case to answer, it was apparently an uphill struggle pushing forward against official resistance.

From that, two possible explanations for how this scandal was able to unfold under so many ministers presents themselves. The first is the problem of prime ministers reshuffling their team too often. 

It isn’t a coincidence that the most effective ministers, such as Michael Gove as education secretary, tend to have not just a long time in-post but often an extended run-up in the shadow brief too. Even a very able politician needs time to get to grips with new responsibilities, especially when it comes to identifying potential political dangers which might not flash on the Civil Service radar.

Without that, they are naturally more likely to depend on official advice and seemingly authoritative third-party evidence. They have nothing else to go on.

On top of that, there’s the big problem posed by the modern enthusiasm for devolving power to arms-length bodies and quangos to the traditional model of ministerial accountability.

Aneurin Bevan famously (if apocryphally) said that the sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar should reverberate around the Palace of Westminster. Implicit in that is that ministers should have quite fine control, or at least the option of fine control, over the operation of the NHS.

That is hardly the model of governance in fashion today. There are practical reasons why: politicians are policy generalists rather than operational specialists, and the relentless expansion of the state makes its close supervision by ministers unrealistic.

This trend is democratically problematic, because it means vast parts of the machinery of state operate on official autopilot with minimal input from our elected representatives. But it also poses a problem of justice when we demand, as constitutional theory dictates, that someone from the government of the day is held accountable for the failings of independent bodies over which they had no day-to-day oversight.

Of course, there are limits to this argument. A canny politician who sees danger can kick up a stink and try to force the official hand, if they really want to. It ought to have occurred to someone that another failed IT project was much more likely than hundreds of sub-postmasters simultaneously turning to crime.

Yet bureaucratic systems stifle initiative by design. It is only so long as one goes along with the system that the system offers any protection; striking out on your own initiative involves taking a personal political risk. They also cultivate a mindset among ministers that relies on advice; if they couldn’t rely on it, the whole thing would grind to a halt.

As I noted in my last piece, there is no sign yet that the relentless expansion of the state into our lives will halt anytime soon. 

Given the persuasive body of literature, from Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void to The Crossman Diaries (from which Yes, Minister drew inspiration) that there is a hard limit to how much of it can ever be subject to properly democratic control, it seems likely the future will hold more Horizon scandals – and longer odds of proper justice.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.