Nic Cicutti: Why we should welcome Ros Altmann’s exit from Govt

Nic Cicutti

Amid all the ministerial reshuffles of the past couple of weeks, there is one departure that stands out for me for being both entirely expected, in hindsight, and – in a curious way – a completely welcome development.

The “resignation” I am referring to is that of pensions minister Ros Altmann, who stepped down a few days ago, a victim of Theresa May’s rather brutal and unnecessary cull of David Cameron’s appointees.

I will come on to what I mean by “welcome” in a minute. But I should first acknowledge that Baroness Altmann was, at first sight, one of Cameron’s more inspired appointments.

She neatly filled the shoes of Steve Webb, himself one of the few genuine visionaries to hold the Government’s pensions brief in the 18 years since the post was created.

Altmann was a candidate for whom the post of pensions minister was unlikely to be an intellectual challenge. It also had the potential for the continuation of a dynamic and reformist approach to pensions, unlike so many of Altmann and Webb’s predecessors in office.

Her depressing replacement is Watford MP Richard Harrington, a former property developer, whose appointment as an under-secretary as opposed to a minister of state marks a downgrading of the role.

Not only does it suggest that May will not be expecting any radical ideas to come from his department in the coming months and years, but the downgraded role is also more likely to form part of the old ministerial merry-go-round so common under Labour before 2010.

But if this is the case, Altmann must take some of the blame. Of course, no prime minister ever gives reasons in public for bringing ministers’ careers to an early end but, to my mind, Altmann paid the price for the decision to publicly criticise her former boss, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, after he quit earlier this year.Altmann claimed Duncan Smith had been looking to resign for some time as part of his campaign to get Britain out of the EU. According to the Financial Times, “her remarks irritated many Westminster Tories, who felt she was politically naïve”.

A similar naivety applied when, shortly after her prospective appointment as “consumer affairs” minister was announced by Cameron just before the 2015 election, Altmann sent an email to hundreds of financial journalists and other contacts telling us all how important it was to vote Conservative.

A few months later, it was discovered that even after taking up her role as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann was a member not just of the Tory party, but of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, having joined all three in March 2014 as director general of Saga.

Why anyone, even a campaigner, should feel that membership of all three main political parties is still important as a means of gaining access to government decision-makers, is beyond me.

Then there was the Government’s treatment of women who discovered too late that the accelerated raising of their retirement ages in 2011 meant their pensions were unexpectedly delayed for up to 18 months.

You do not have to be a “Waspi” and call for a repeal of the 2011 Pensions Act to see that what has happened to hundreds of thousands of women born between April 1953 and April 1956 is wrong. Altmann’s half-hearted defence of the Government on this issue also left a bad taste in the mouth.

After her departure, Altmann complained to the Jewish Chronicle that her time as a minister “has been the most terrible experience for me. I have felt under pressure the whole time; you have been squished and squashed in every direction and you just want to explode sometimes.”

At the time of her appointment, I wrote that I hoped her time in Government would not end up like that of former CBI chief Digby Jones, who was briefly trade minister in Gordon Brown’s “government of all the talents” in 2007.

Jones wrote of his time in office: “What I hadn’t expected was the omnipotent suffocation by process and the obligatory emasculation of original thought and initiative. The governmental machine demanded complete obedience in a way which anyone outside the Westminster bubble wouldn’t have believed.”

Altmann’s media interviews in the past week suggest almost exactly the same thing happened to her: many of her projects ended up on the back burner, possibly because of ongoing EU-related rows but also because if there is one thing civil servants hate is ministers with ideas and a burning zeal to carry them out.

Having criticised her time in office, I now need to explain what I mean by her “welcome” defenestration as a minister. Within hours of Altmann stepping down, I received the first email in more than a year from her, setting out trenchant views on pensions issues.

Last week The Times published an article calling for the Lifetime Isa to be scrapped, which she had previously argued for at length in a Money Marketing interview.

Her Twitter account, meanwhile, was busy calling for the lifetime allowance to be scrapped on the grounds that you should not penalise good investment performance. All great stuff.

In other words, Altmann is back to her campaigning best, what she is brilliant at. Welcome back Ros, we have missed you.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk