This week's Economist has dipped a very grand toe into the running dispute over the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the way old hands complain about Trevor Phillips not running it the way they think he should. That's very civic-minded for such a global brand.
The Guardian first reported trouble at the EHRC mill last week after three high-level figures were reported to be leaving and a fourth considering his position.
Their departures were blamed, at least partly, on the direction the new gender/race/sexuality/religious/disability equality watchdog seems to be going since pre-existing groups were merged under Phillips's chairmanship in 2007.
There's a subplot involving an Audit Commission report, due shortly, that expresses doubt about expenses and missing laptops at the pre-merged bodies. But this is really about ex-TV journalist Phillips's alleged "light touch" approach to regulation and intervention, not to mention his quotable, provocative style.
Critics complain that Phillips's promotion of "fairness" over equality (fairness has no status in statute law) is a cul-de-sac, that his doubts about the continued usefulness of the concept of "institutional racism" in the police, combined with concern for the needs of poor white Britons – as well as other disadvantaged groups – makes him a suspect, heterodox figure.
Ken Livingstone joked recently that his former Labour London assembly colleague (and rival) will soon be joining the BNP. They are old foes. Ken is said to have promised to campaign – "on my Zimmer frame if necessary" – to stop Phillips (55) ever becoming mayor of London.
It's true that an aura of personal ambition often accompanies Phillips's activities, something that alarms less thrusting colleagues. Trevor doesn't consult us, they told the Sunday Times.
Lord (Herman) Ouseley, one of his predecessors as chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, is one of those on the attack, so there's a generational dimension to the feud.
Phillips's breezy assault on traditional policies has certainly had some good rightwing press. But he's also been attacked as part of the PC thought police, despite refusing to join the stampede to condemn Carol Thatcher's "golliwog" remark in a TV green room. He got whacked from the left for not doing so.
My reading of the Economist piece is that it signals a Phillips fightback, ahead of the imminent publication of Harriet Harman's equalities bill, which among other changes (including equality audits), would enhance the EHRC's regulatory role. There's also the small matter of his reappointment, due in September.
Phillips is accused of being too close to New Labour, too matey with his old chum Peter Mandelson, the business secretary, who has doubts about new regulatory functions in a recession, but is said to have been persuaded of their merit by Harman.
She and Phillips go a long way back too. Student activist Phillips and her trade union husband, Jack Dromey, were on the Grunwick picket line together, a famous north London cause celebre in the late 70s.
Dromey has come a long way too; he looked more like a banker than a senior official of Unite when he swept past me in the street last night. It's a small world these people inhabit (and I observe), a world of quangos, Whitehall committees and even the House of Lords. So it has the feel of a feud within the family.
Does all this matter much? Obviously it does to Phillips, his critics and his allies in the divided EHRC. The quote which leaps out of the Economist piece is that he wants the £70m a year commission to adapt to changing times – to "become more Ofcom than Amnesty International", more a professional regulator than an impassioned lobbyist.
That seems reasonable to me, but I was never enamoured of terms like "institutional racism", having actually read the 1999 Macpherson report into Stephen Lawrence's murder, the report which coined it. The doomed investigation read more like a cock-up to me.
By coincidence the Guardian today reports ex-Met chief Sir Ian Blair as challenging the official verdict too. The cops had treated the Lawrences as they would any other working-class family at the time, and were "not necessarily" racist. Things are better now, Blair insisted.
Critics who complain Phillips doesn't intervene enough overlook the 90 compliance actions he's taken in the job so far – more than some of them.
Some are what are called "transitional commissioners," people appointed to see that the rival interests are protected after the kind of merger bound to create institutional tensions.
Only last week the health and social care regulators were merged into the new Care Quality Commission (CQC) under Lady Young, who picked Cynthia Bower, head of the West Midlands strategic health authority (SHA), which missed the crisis at Stafford hospital, as her chief executive. We can expect merger pains there too. The Tories are already on Bower's case.
As for the EHRC departees, Patrick Diamond, a former Alan Milburn/Mandelson protege, has gone off to run political strategy for Gordon Brown at No 10. Could he really say no? Nicola Brewer, a high-flying diplomat before she became EHRC chief executive, is in the frame to take over from Paul Boateng as British high commissioner to South Africa.
Not a job to turn down either, though Brewer is clearly cross with aspects of Phillips's leadership. But he's the public figure, a working-class boy from immigrant Guyanese stock, he's the one with political nous and flair. At the end of the day that's what it's about too.
The Guardian, 7th April 2009