Conservative Diary

« Pauline Neville-Jones resigns. Angela Browning replaces her. Will Downing Street deliver on the Munich speech? | Main | James Brokenshire appointed Security Minister »

A year on, this is still the Pushmi-Pullyu Government. And despite last week's drama, it will remain so.

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-05-03 at 11.02.24

Let's stand back from the turbulent aftermath of the AV referendum - with all its argy-bargy about the whether the Coalition will move left or right, and whether David Cameron should now press home his advantage - to look at the Government in the round, one year on.

  • Never forget how many voters like the idea of two parties governing together.  It's worth clocking right at the start how much backing the coalition partners have: add their poll ratings together, and the government parties command the support of between 45 and 50 per cent of the electorate.  No administration in recent history has been buttressed by so much backing.  Perhaps this is a sign of the deeply pragmatic instincts of the British people; perhaps it is a mere consequence of the electoral arithmetic.  But either way, Labour are left with the advantage of having opposition mostly to themselves - but the disadvantage of being easily portrayed as petty and partisan, out for their own good, not the common good.
  • But two parties governing together means less clear and coherent administration than one governing alone.  Governments are sometimes reduced to incoherence when they reach the end of their term, or when their Commons majority is imperilled - like the Callaghan Government of the late 70s or the Major Government of the mid-90s.  This administration has a majority in the lobbies of over 80, but the necessities of coalition none the less give its work an ad-hoc feel.  In some crucial areas - such as human rights policy and immigration policy - it seems to make up policy as it goes along.  A commission on a British Bill of Rights was rushed in after the Commons rejected votes for prisoners.  On immigration, the Prime Minister has described reducing it to tens of thousands as an "ambition", even though that aim was in the background papers to the Queen's Speech.
  • This lack of clarity is blurred further by the dysfunctions in Downing Street.  With an unwieldly coalition to manage, a streamlined central operation is urgently required.  There isn't one.  Number 10 has no imposing Chief of Staff on the Lynton Crosby model.  It began with a communications chief which it has since lost, and without a head of strategy which it's since acquired.  The responsibilites of Steve Hilton, whose brief ranges from blue sky thinking to detailed policy implementation, have never been clear.  Downing Street began with no proper policy unit, and in that now formed civil servants - who necessarily can't identify with the Government's political aims - are heavily represented.  There is no real outreach operation to the supporters of either party.  Downing Street's run a bit like an old country house of trusted friends and retainers.
  • The new Government over-reacted to the mistakes of its predecessors.  Tony Blair brought to Britain presidential government, spin, and a reluctance to reform until too late.  In Opposition, Cameron swore that things would be different next time round.  He would be less a Chief Executive than a Chairman, civil service rigour would replace sofa government, and transformational reform would happen.  But the pendulum of correction swung too far.  The new Government unwisely denuded itself of special advisers.  It began with no effective policy unit.  It was therefore unable properly to scrutinise the Lansley health reform plans, and was forced to draft Oliver Letwin in for the purpose.  It is arguably undertaking one major reform too many - welfare, schools, health, police and public sector pension reform is an order taller than any administration has previously attempted at once.
  • It has no core message other than the need for deficit reduction.  Ask a simple question: what's this Government for?  The most likely answer from voters would be: to reduce the deficit (no mean objective).  At their party conference last October, the Conservatives floated the slogan "Together in the national interest" - five words that nicely captured the Stanley Baldwinesque flavour of the Government.  But since then there has been no concerted effort to repeat the idea in adverts or online, in interviews or speeches.  Furthermore, there have been no joint attacks on Labour since the Warsi-Huhne "summer of scrutiny" press conference.  In particular, there is no wider sense of what the Government's for.  David Cameron devoted his first conference speech to his cherished dream of "The Big Society", but there's no evidence that the idea has taken popular root.
  • In particular, the Government doesn't get aspiration.  "The Big Society", with its Burkean feel, dovetails nicely with the One Nation aspect of conservatism.  (And for that reason is relatively easy to sell to the Liberal Democrats, although Clegg doesn't seem to feel comfortable with it.)  What's missing from the Government's pitch is any more aspirational message to voters and families - in particular, to the strivers, battlers, breadwinners, poundstretchers, Sid's Heirs, C1 and C2s.  There is little sense that Cameron and Clegg are on the side of the person who wants to earn more and get on.  The would-be rising class also has no clear representative in Cabinet, no senior politician with an obvious ear for their concerns.  This is a big political weakness for the larger of the two Coalition partners in particular, whose leadership is sometimes lampooned as a clique of public schoolboys.
  • The senior politician who brings most clarity and cut-through to the Government is George Osborne.  The Chancellor has spoken of his frustration with a "society where one person leaves for work at seven in the morning and sees on the other side of the street the blind pulled down because their neighbour is living a lifetime on benefits."  This is the closest a senior member of the Government has come to capturing the gut politics of aspirational voters.  It's also a reminder that the Osborne has been the main political success of the Government to date - smoothly executing the transiton from novice to Chancellor; producing a coherent deficit reduction plan and two capable budgets; adapting to the loss of David Laws and making the most of Danny Alexander; surfacing over AV to help torpedo the Liberal Democrats; running a political operation far more slick than Number 10s.
  • At home, the Coalition is at its most blue on deficit reduction, public service reform and localism - and at its least on law and order, the EU, human rights, and the constitution.  That, at any rate, is my judgement; others will take their own view.  The most successful senior Ministers to date have probably been Osborne and Eric Pickles, who has forced real localist change on planning, housing, and local governance.  Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove are much admired for their radical zeal, but much will depend on whether the former can deliver welfare to work and the latter big growth in the number of academies.  Ken Clarke's enthusiasm for reducing prison numbers is a substantial political weakness, since law and order is always among the top three or four political issues that matter to voters.
  • Abroad, the Government has invented on the hoof a new policy of limited intervention.  In opposition, Cameron and William Hague's ideal of foreign policy had a strong Britain First flavour.  There would be no more neo-liberal wars, a new emphasis on trade, better relations with emerging countries and a limited repatriation of EU powers.  All but the last sit conveniently enough with the Liberal Democrats and, with the Coalition duly in place, the Prime Minister duly jetted off to Delhi with Vince Cable and a vast entourage of Ministers.  The "Arab spring" caught the world and Government unawares, and Cameron morphed overnight into the saviour of Benghazi - one of his finest moments to date.  The Coalition has thus discovered itself with a policy of limited intervention.  On security issues, Cameron himself takes a hard line on extremism which isn't shared by Clegg.
  • The rose garden politics of the Government's first six months is long withered.  The memorable early press conference in the Downing Street rose garden struck an early tone of matey co-operation.  But the Liberal Democrats' falling poll ratings brought with them divided councils about how to deal with their coalition partners.  Some said that experience abroad suggested that squabbling government partners were punished by voters; others, that the Liberal Democrats had to be seen to "stand up to the Tories".  The high stakes of the AV campaign settled the argument, as the prospect of defeat provoked anti-Conservative hyperbole from Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and - especially - Chris Huhne.  The loss of David Laws was an early blow to blue-yellow unity; the monstering of AV left it shattered.  From now on, relations between the two parties will at best be correct but cool.
  • Never underestimate the damage done to the Liberal Democrats by Nick Clegg's U-turn on tuition fees.  George Osborne was preparing in Opposition to become a new Government's lead hate-figure - the axe-swinging heir to Thatcher.  But once the Coalition was formed, it was always likely that the Liberal Democrats would soak up much of the hatred of the left, for having given the dreaded Tories cover in government for "cuts".  The humiliation of Clegg, however, wasn't inevitable, and is largely a consequence of his U-turn on tuition fees, the fruit of an opposition promise so rash that one wonders whether the man who fronted it was seriously thinking about being in government at all.  Within less than a year, the Deputy Prime Minister had plunged from being the hero of the election TV debates to a symbol of the cynicism of the political class.
  • David Cameron, by contrast, is relatively unharmed - and his gamble over AV paid off.  The Prime Minister is not exactly popular - very few holders of the office are, at least while they govern.  But his reputation hasn't collapsed, like that of his Deputy.  This isn't the place for an extended essay on his capacities as a leader and character or a man, but two points are worth making.  First, his party's poll ratings are surprisingly resilient.  Second, his Coalition gamble over AV has paid off.  If there had been a Yes vote, he could have been subject to a leadership challenge, with Tory MPs queueing up to complain about their leader having made a concession which turned out to be fatal.  But since there hasn't, the pressure is off, and the curious circumstances in which the AV poll was sold to the Parliamentary Party may no longer be an issue.
  • The Coalition is vulnerable to events, but will probably survive its term.  If the rose garden press conference saw the high water mark of coaliton co-operation, the AV quarrel may have marked its lowest.  Both parties were playing for the highest stakes during a big constitutional referendum over which they fundamentally disagreed, so it was little wonder that rhetoric was raised and tempers lost.  An early election is in the interest of neither party.  It probably wouldn't give Cameron a clear majority and would certainly see the Liberal Democrats lose heaps of seats.  The Coalition is vulnerable to the unexpected - a European financial crisis, a spectacular resignation, the gripes of both sets of backbenchers, some unseen bolt from the blue.  But the odds are that it will continue, although real inter-party co-operation will surely cease in its last year, as the election approaches.
  • This is a pushmi-pullyu Government - facing both ways, surviving by concession, united by the will to power.  How will the coalition keep itself going over the next few years?  Tory backbenchers, their patience with their partners near-exhausted, are campaigning for policies blue in tooth and claw.  The Liberal Democrats are in little position to resist: after, if they pulled the plug on the Coalition, they'd be "turkeys voting for Christmas".  But how Cameron will respond isn't hard to guess.  Yes, there'll be a sharper profile, a tougher tone - and, when necessary, more speeches on immigration (and the like).  But essentially, he'll carry on as he has to date - first leaning towards his party to keep it on board, then back towards the Liberal Democrats: responding to the needs of the moment, making it up as he goes along - doing infinitely more good than Labour but much less than we could on our own.

This is the pushmi-pullyu government, facing both ways but given an inner coherence by its will to power.  And, just like that mythical beast, you've "never seen anything like it, never seen anything like it, never seen anything it like it in your life".


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.