Monday, 7 January 2013

Coalition Government Mid-term Review

Strong, stable and firm leadership was the Cameron buzz-phrase at the top of his presentation of the mid-term review. It was interesting thereafter to hear his list of the successes of the coalition and contrast them with Nick Clegg's.

  • On the NHS (in England, implicitly) he claimed success for the Lansley/Hunt reforms. I'll leave it to other commentators how they have turned out in reality over the border, but it seems to me that the reforms were neither in the Conservative manifesto, nor the Liberal Democrat one, nor in the coalition agreement. The abolition of one tier of management seems to have been achieved at the price of installing a supervisory board. At least the loophole which gave money to private firms for virtually doing nothing has been closed.
  • Pensions: naturally, Cameron concentrated on the change in balance in the public sector.
  • Education:  - he went out of his way to praise Michael Gove's free schools and expansion of the academy system, neither of which apply to Wales, but didn't mention the pupil premium which, thanks to Kirsty Williams, does.
  • Employment: Cameron rejoiced in the creation of many more private sector jobs. 
  • Transport infrastructure. Apart from the contentious HS2, Cameron was probably on solid ground here. He did not mention the Keynesian implications of the rail infrastructure programme, presumably for fear of stirring up the Tory backwoodsmen, but this has surely been one of the coalition's achievements over the last administration.
  • Banking reform: it was good to hear Cameron championing the sort of changes Vince Cable has been pressing, against opposition from the chancellor and (presumably) Treasury advisors.
Of the programme for the next two years, child-care, a mortgage deposit scheme, reducing poverty in old-age, long-term care, limiting state power and increasing  private interest in the motorway network, only the last two would sound warning bells for most Liberal Democrats, though no doubt economic liberals would welcome them wholeheartedly.

There was no mention of Europe.

In his summing-up, Cameron hit several Daily Mail buttons: "striving", "aspiration", "hard-working families": in other words, he was not expecting many votes in 2015 from social security claimants.

In his contribution, significantly, Nick also said that the coalition was helping people "get on in life" but he did add fairness to its list of aims. To the catalogue of achievements he added those most closely associated with the LibDms: taking lower-paid out of tax, the pupil premium , closing tax loopholes, triple lock on pensions, apprenticeships (surprising that Cameron didn't bag this one for himself) and the Green Investment Bank.

There were too few questions from the political hacks to form a statistically significant sample, but it was still interesting that the interrogation was mainly on the party political aspects of the review, and hardly anything on the actual policies, even the contentious ones. There was no question on the NHS, only one on education (on university education at that) and one on the EU. The tired old marriage simile was used again and put down by Cameron who preferred to see the coalition agreement as similar to the guarantee on the Ronseal tin.

Where do I stand?  I agree that stability has been the main benefit of coalition. The steady reduction of the fiscal deficit has restored confidence. It has, in Nick Clegg's phrase in an earlier Q&A session, kept the bond-holders off our backs. The suggestion that UK can safely return to economic imprudence because she controls her own currency is rebutted by the example of the government of Argentina, which once again has resorted to sabre-rattling to distract its voters from the mess that defaults and devaluations have left it in.

There has been one major unforeseen benefit of coalition government: the installation of pensions expert Steve Webb as a minister. There is the probability of a pensions structure being developed which will be robust for a generation, instead of having to be revisited every two or three years. The fact that two of the three major parties are signed up to it should guarantee its success. It would only be jeopardised by the break-up of the coalition which is threatened by the dry bones (and hollobones) of the Thatcher tendency.

On the other hand, I have been disappointed in two areas in which I thought Liberal Democrats had more in common with Conservatives than with Labour: personal freedom and decentralising government. Having made a good start on civil rights, Theresa May is taking a step backwards with proposals for secret courts, and the Conservative ministers in DCLG seem as keen on micromanagement as their Labour predecessors.

We signed up to an agreement and we should stand by that. There is not only a moral imperative, but also an economic one. The country can not yet afford a return to uncertainty. On the other hand, Liberal Democrat ministers do seem to have been browbeaten into accepting more cuts in social security than they need to.


Bill Chapman said...

Let me give you a view from north Wales. You're far too kind to the worst government I remember, one that limps from omnishambles to omnishambles.

You wrote "We signed up to an agreement and we should stand by that." No, there is such a thing as divorce because of unreconcilable differences - and the LibDems should withdraw from the coalition now if they want to survive as a party.

This is a government run by out-of-touch public school twits. A few brave LibDem MPs have spoken out against Conservative measures, but the majority sit in sullen silence, while the rich get rich and the poor get poorer.

Frank H Little said...

Bill, the sad truth is that even on political grounds it would damage the party to attempt to break up the coalition now.

Frank H Little said...

The documents are at