© The Prime Minister’s Office
For all the modish talk of modernisation, all too many of the bad headlines and public relations blunders that have beset the coalition have sprung from an old-fashioned, old-chums-all-together way of conducting the serious business of government. This amateurish culture is far from the purposeful professionalism of Margaret Thatcher’s days. A typical example was the ruination in 2010 of some perfectly sensible proposals to improve the management of the national asset of commercial forestry which ended up in an unmannerly row between the Forestry Commission and the National Trust on one side and the government on the other.
Foolishly, I thought that the treasury would have learned from the discomfiture of other departments and taken rather more care in the presentation of the budget. Not so, however. Certainly part of the problem arose from the duplicitous tactics of the Liberal Democrats who, with eyes on the forthcoming local elections, shamelessly leaked budget proposals for partisan advantage. But George Osborne was not free from blame. His casual presentation of the progressive loss of tax relief for pensioners as an administrative tidying up, as well as the needless muddle over proposed changes to tax relief on charitable giving, led to controversies which obliterated both the substantial rise in the basic tax threshold and his arguments against the Balls-Miliband agenda of a return to the policies which led to the debt crisis.
The storm of adverse comment from even usually supportive newspapers and commentators seemed to start a snowball of criticism and bad publicity rolling. This then gathered pace until it overwhelmed hundreds of sitting Conservative councillors at the local elections weeks later.
There can be little doubt that the inherent problems of coalition government account for some of the troubles. It is time that David Cameron came to grips with the hard fact that the prime concern of his Lib Dem “partners” is to ensure that there will not be a Conservative majority after the next election, since that would leave a powerless rump of a party with neither relevance nor future. To that end, Nick Clegg seems ready even to abandon his cherished proposal to create a senate, elected by proportional representation to ensure a permanent Lib Dem blocking minority. This is the apparent price of an unspoken deal with Labour to thwart the redrawing of constituency boundaries that would equalise the electorates and remove the gross bias in favour of Labour which has grown over recent years.
Unhappily it is now “the Quad,” that is the junta comprised by Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the treasury, which makes government policy. It is here, and not in the Cabinet, that the Lib Dems have equality of numbers. That heightens the discontent of Conservative backbenchers; some are now muttering their doubts over whether the Prime Minister is, at heart, a Lib Dem rather than a Conservative.
Political anoraks apart, at this stage of the electoral cycle, the public are more concerned with the coalition’s ability to deliver on the policies which immediately affect their lives. This is not, in general, a chip-on-the-shoulder bleat about the expensively educated rich boys at the top of government. The re-election of Boris Johnson showed that even amongst a predominately Labour-inclined electorate, delivery counts for more than perceived social class.
The unpopularity of the coalition arises from doubts that the chancellor’s economic policy will create the conditions for growth and prosperity, the apparent inability of ministers either to explain or implement their proposals, and an irritation at the time and money expended on what voters see as irrelevant or undesirable objectives.
To a very large extent, that springs from a failure to persuade the man in the street of the sheer awfulness of the government’s inheritance from the Blair-Brown years. The scale of the debts piled up by New Labour is so far outside normal experience that it has to be translated into understandable terms. For example, interest on these debts is now greater than our spending on education and defence.
I am sure, at least I hope that I am sure, that ministers understand that reducing the deficit is not the same as reducing our debt and the burden of interest on it, but I doubt that the majority of voters do. Nor has it helped to indulge in macho talk about “the cuts” whilst public expenditure is still rising at an unsustainable rate. How a government riddled with former public relations professionals can be so maladroit at conveying its messages is a puzzle.
Perhaps the answer to that puzzle lies in the very uncertainty about the message it wants to convey. Cameron rightly took the view that having a clear political programme based on a coherent political philosophy is little use unless one is in office. What he seems not to accept is that to be in office without such a programme has a considerable downside too. Wanting to be in the saddle without a clear view of where to ride the horse is all too likely to result in the rider being thrown off and the horse bolting.
Cameron’s allies would object that this is an unfair assessment of the roots of the government’s problems. For them both the route to electoral success and to success in government is to be found in “the middle ground.” By definition, however, shifting one’s party towards the middle ground is bound to move the middle itself towards one’s opponent. On the other hand, searching for the common ground on which your opponent’s supporters stand alongside your own is a very different matter. Moreover, there is plenty of such common ground between traditional Tories and traditional Labour supporters.
Welfare reform, ensuring that welfare dependency never pays better than work, lower taxes, effective immigration control, schools that teach basic skills rather than political correctness, a tougher line against drunkenness and disorder which plague our city streets, a feeling that in hard times the welfare of our sick, disabled and elderly should come before overseas aid, impatience with multiculturalism, the belief that we can govern ourselves and make our own laws without the “help” of Germans, French, Greeks or Belgians: these are all the concerns of the middle ground. These are the issues which would bring disenchanted one-time Tory voters and disenchanted Labour voters alike to support a government, whether it flew a red or blue flag.
A government which dealt with these matters would gain the confidence of the electorate and the leeway to do what is necessary to solve our economic problems.
The question now is whether the coalition has the will, the ability or the time to do what needs to be done. The recent local elections confirmed not just the unpopularity of the governing coalition partners, but of political parties in general amongst a turnout of only 32 per cent. In Scotland, Labour managed to hold on in Glasgow against the SNP juggernaut. In London, Boris Johnson showed that a rich Old Etonian aided by a fairly good record in office can beat a discredited Labour candidate.
But this was against the trend: elsewhere Labour did well, and the Tories have to ask themselves if Ed Miliband is a better leader than they thought, or are they less effective in dealing with Labour than they had hoped? Labour seem to have regained some of the voters they had lost to the BNP, but the rise of the Greens appealing to those leftists ashamed of Labour should be a source of concern to Miliband. The unfortunate Lib Dems had very little comfort. Although UKIP’s performance was fairly good, it was patchy, and they are still seen as a party more concerned about Europe than the town halls. Their threat will be far greater in 2014 when the local and European elections coincide.
Overall the winner by a margin of two-to-one was that growing movement, “None of The Above.” The only apparent certainty among the major parties is the probable near extinction of the Lib Dems. Everything else could change radically in the aftermath of a collapse of the euro and the resultant economic and political mayhem spreading across the Channel.