Following the rules is the great test of political leadership

 
Marc Sidwell
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LEADERSHIP in business is about making tough decisions based on limited information and then adjusting to the consequences. Political leadership has its share of such tough calls, but it also has another component. In a liberal democracy, our politicians lead best when they create the conditions in which the rest of us can face our own hard choices without having to look constantly over our shoulders to Westminster.

When the centre refuses to give firm direction – changing the rules too often or simply, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, “resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift” – there are real costs to the economy, as greater uncertainty raises the potential cost of private investment.

So it’s important, for instance, that the clearly set out rules for the West Coast Main Line franchise bid process are followed. The government has been right not to bend to popular pressure to halt proceedings because the loser objected to the outcome. However, it is right that formal objections should be heard. Now that Virgin Trains has started court proceedings, its complaint can be aired in the proper setting.

Airports are more complicated. The coalition is under no legal commitment to hold firm against a third runway at Heathrow. However, the promise to do just that featured not only in the coalition agreement, but in both parties’ 2010 election platforms. If Heathrow expansion went ahead, there would be a clear duty to voters to explain such a screeching change of course, and to make it the first step in a new strategic direction, not just a messy, short-term fix that promised more reversals to follow.

In today’s Forum (page 17), Simon Walker of the Institute of Directors makes the case for keeping the third runway on the table. Some decision needs to be taken to solve the UK’s air capacity squeeze, as senior business voices have been warning for some time. Inconsistency is costly, but so is dithering. After two delays to the airport expansion consultation this year, holding the line against a third runway is no answer: David Cameron’s government needs to have a clear vision of what it is for.

HONOURED IN THE BREACH

For all the importance of following the rules you’ve agreed, sometimes the rules themselves need a shakeup. Today’s report on the honours system (see our coverage on page 6) is long overdue, and a welcome contribution to the debate.

For an institution that plays such an important part in valuing exceptional contributions to national life, it has also developed a regrettable reputation for rewarding those on the inside – primarily politicians and civil servants, but also, as the report acknowledges, some senior business figures – for no more than doing their day job.

After the recent row over whether Olympic medallists could expect honours without additional evidence of their community work, it is high time the process became more open, and for gongs recognising no more than long service to be phased out.

It is also welcome to see the select committee calling for a more transparent process of forfeiture following Fred Goodwin’s loss of his knighthood in January. Goodwin’s damage to the reputation of banking was real and his return to a less-elevated status was surely deserved. But murky, inadequate criteria for forfeit made the result seem driven more by the pressure of headlines than the justice of the case. Due process and predictability must trump trial by media or political opportunism in any system that honours our values.