Peter Hoskin: Will we have cause to celebrate the Coalition in its landmark year of 2017?
Have you got a five-year diary to hand? And, perchance, a pen? Lovely, I thought you would. Now please flick forward to 2017 and draw a big circle around the whole of that year. Then add some stars, smiley faces, arrows; anything that will help it to stand out. You see, 2017 is something of landmark year for education. As we discovered yesterday, it will be the year when Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate examinations are first taken and marked. It will, we hope, be a year that slams another stake into the unholy monster that is grade inflation.
But 2017 doesn’t just… actually, wait, have you got a highlighter instead? That might be better than a normal pen. After all, as I was saying, 2017 doesn’t just feature landmarks in education. It is currently expected to be the year when our structural deficit is finally whittled down to zero and turned into a fiscal surplus. It is also expected to be the year when all working-age benefit claimants will have moved onto Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit. We may as well just pattern our diaries with fluorescent yellow ink now.
By far most important problem is that of implementation. It might be hoped that, if Labour win the next election, many of the Coalition’s reforms will have progressed too far to be reversed — but, of course, that rather depends on those reforms progressing sufficiently far in the meantime. Yet the longer it takes to implement a policy the more opportunity there is for gremlins, all armed with a selection of grim unknowns, to descend upon it. Those five years could soon become six, seven, eight or never.
We have already witnessed this process with the public finances. It was George Osborne’s original intention to have the deficit obliterated by the end of this Parliament, but the absence of growth has made his best-laid plans go astray. And what chance that the course of IDS’s Universal Credit is similarly diverted? The good minister has recently assured us that the requisite computer system will be delivered on time, in 2013. But, as I pointed out last year, the history of HM Revenue and Custom’s PAYE computer system — upon which the Universal Credit will lean — does not inspire optimism.
Naturally, all governments face such difficulty and delay. And the particular difficulties and delays will vary by department, with no blanket solution for all. But there are still ways for this government to boost its chances generally. One is to reform that part of government which will abide whoever wins the next election — the civil service — making them more accountable for implementing the government’s agenda. Another is to give those same civil servants a clearer sense of the future, in the form of a Spending Review, so that they might strive towards it. Thanks to internal tensions over benefit cuts, the Coalition is currently reluctant to set out its plans for after 2015, but this could be a gross folly. Cuts can take years to filter from the Chancellor’s head to Whitehall’s balance sheets. They ought to be being planned now, even if things change in future.
All of which is wrapped up with another problem for Cameron & Co. — one of message. The Coalition is entering an awkward, adolescent phase of the Parliament, when less can be blamed on the sins of governments past, and more emphasis must be placed on the achievements that have been sealed and the achievements that are yet to come. In this task, they might be helped by all these policy triumphs timed for 2017, in that they have a sunny future to point towards. But I doubt it will be as straightforward as that. It is hard to polish up yesterday’s announcement as tomorrow’s promise.
This is why some government advisers are increasingly excited about the refreshed Coalition Agreement being prepared by Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander. “It will remind people of what we’re about,” says one, “and it should help make the argument for where we’re going.” The thinking is that this could be where message and implementation meet: by setting out what is yet to be done, stage by stage, the government is not only strengthening the odds that it is done, but also making sure that there are constantly new goals to discuss. Coalition might become fresh again, rather than stale.
In truth, this government has done much to ensure that its policies will persist past its demise. There are those policies, such as spending transparency, that will be politically impossible to reverse. And there are those — including Mr Gove’s English Baccalaureate, which will be taught in schools from 2015 — that will be practically impossible to reverse. But more can and will be done to lay the ground for 2017. After all, whoever’s in power, it will not hurt the Conservative Party to have that year’s greatest achievements regarded as the fruits of Coalition.