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Downing Street mustn't present the Liberal Democrats as the caring face of the Coalition

by Paul Goodman

DOWNING-STREET-10 I can't remember a Government pausing to hold a "listening exercise" on a measure making its way through Parliament.  Yet this one is now holding up its own health bill in order to do so.  It's clear that a climbdown is coming on major aspects of the measure, as Stephen Dorrell's Health Select Committee recommends today.  But amidst the discussion on U-turns and all that, a broader lesson's in danger of being missed.

On the about-turn itself, three points are worth making.

  • A U-turn on this bill will be quickly forgotten...   Some U-turns define a Government, such as Edward Heath's in 1972.  But many fade quickly.  For example, who now dwells on Margaret Thatcher backing off before the miners in 1981?  If the Coalition lasts its full term, few will remember what its original plans were for Primary Care Trusts and their governance.  So the Prime Minister's in a good position to back off.
  • ...But Andrew Lansley's got every right to be aggrieved...  One can disagree about whether or not Lansley's PCT plan was set out in the manifesto.  None the less, there can be no doubt that it was proposed in a bill which the Prime Minister signed up to.  Oliver Letwin even gave Lansley's plans the once-over to make sure they added up.  The pause in the bill thus shows a strategic faliure by Number 10 to plan properly, driven by the early reduction of special advisers and the original lack of a settled Policy Unit.
  • ...And a question follows: if there's to be a go-slow on the PCT plans, how's the NHS to deliver value for money as quickly?  There have certainly been presentational failures.  As Jonathan indicated yesterday, it's never been quite clear whether the main point of the bill is to give doctors more power, or rescue the NHS from its financial problems.  But the Health Secretary has an awkward point for the Treasury: if you want to go slower, fine - but in that case, the NHS will need even more money.
The larger lesson, however, is as follows -
  • The biggest Coalition danger facing the Party isn't the Government shifting to the left...  Sure, the Coalition's see-saw sometimes tilts towards the Liberal Democrats, as over extra budget cash for the Green investment bank.  But it sometimes tilts the other way, too - as over the signal that the 50p tax rate will go, to take another budget announcement.  The heart of many Party members isn't in the Coalition Agreement.  But there's been no decisive move left from its terms.
  • ...But the Liberal Democrats claiming credit for "compassionate concessions".  As it happens, Conservative backbenchers aren't sold on Lansley's plan.  But although voters aren't likely to remember the precise details when the slowdown's formally announced, a vague impression will lodge - that the Liberal Democrats got the changes they wanted, even though only one of their party's backbenchers opposed the bill at second reading.
  • The Party "can't afford to sub-contract compassion to the Liberal Democrats".  Simon Hughes has already claimed the credit for the EMA replacement.  This is a part of a pattern.  The Liberal Democrats regularly do so when the Government forks out some extra cash or helps some poorer people: to cite just one example, have a look at this local Liberal Democrat press release from last August about concessions over the academies bill.

During the 1980s, the Conservatives established a reputation for competence - and being the Party that  faces up to difficult decisions remains one of the strongest parts of the Conservative brand.  But it also came to be seen as uncaring.  When planning for government, David Cameron was rightly determined to end that reputation.  Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit, Michael Gove's academies and free schools programme, Chris Grayling's determination not to consign those on out-of-work benefits to joblessness for life - all these are evidence of compassionate conservatism in action.

If AV is rejected in the coming referendum, Number 10 will be tempted to make more concessions to the junior coalition partner in order to prop up Nick Clegg.  As Damian Green's indicated, the Party mustn't get into a position whereby, come the next election, the Liberal Democrats gain electoral reward for serving as the Coalition's heart while the Conservatives provided the head.  If retreat from Lansley's bill is the order of the day, let it be presented as the decision of the whole Government, rather than as a response to the lobbying of part of it.  This claim also has the merit of being true.


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