End of term report for the Coalition government
- 18 July 2012
- From the section UK Politics
If ever a government needed a holiday, it's this one.
As most of us head off to lie on the sand, the coalition is desperate to draw a line in it.
Over the last few months, not everything has gone right. There have been rows over the Budget cut in the top rate of tax and the so-called "granny tax" reduction in pensioners' tax relief. There have been U-turns on the attempt to levy VAT on pasties, caravans and church repairs, and the attempted cut in tax relief on charitable giving.
Ministers have changed their minds on what jet fighters they want for aircraft carriers, on how evidence could be kept secret in court and even how buzzards should be controlled.
There have been queues at petrol stations after ministers talked a gaffe in a jerry can into a national fuel shortage. There has been the all-consuming saga of the relationship between Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's office and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, recorded in minute detail by the unending daytime television legal drama that is the Leveson inquiry.
Add to that uncertainty over David Cameron's policy on a European referendum and the coalition-dividing row over reform of the House of Lords, and you have plenty for ministers to mull over from their rain-drenched beaches.
Conclusion one: Competence questions
All this has dented the government's reputation for competence. Ministers claimed all those U-turns showed they were listening and taking their time to make sure they get policy right. But many voters - and Tory MPs - have concluded that this is a government that just cannot stop changing its mind. And many MPs are reluctant to defend government policy if it might change the following day.
Conclusion two: Budget damage
The Budget was damaging for the government not just because it prompted messy U-turns, but because it raised doubts in the minds of voters about whether we really were all in this together. Many Tory MPs believe that cutting the top rate of tax might be sound economics but it is lousy politics. It has allowed Labour to portray the Tories as not being on the side of all those feeling the pinch and eating pasties.
Conclusion three: Discipline problems
The last few months have added to David Cameron's discipline problem on the Conservative backbenches. The irritable, scratchy mood among Tory MPs has been worsened by the row over Lords reform. Many feel unloved by Team Cameron and few expect promotion in the oft-delayed reshuffle. There is a separateness between Downing Street and their troops in Parliament. As one MP put it to me: "David has lost the benefit of the doubt."
Conclusion four: Seeking a purpose
Behind much of the Tory restlessness is a question: what is the government for? Or rather, what is the Conservative Party for? What is the role of the party within a coalition? Where is David Cameron leading it? Is he a traditional Conservative who has sold his soul to some dastardly liberals? Or is he a modernising progressive who has forgotten his green, Big Society credentials? As one very senior and experienced MP told me: "There is no spark within the government. If you kick it, the corpse doesn't move."
Conclusion five: Coalition needs repair
The coalition is in need of some repair. The refusal of the Lib Dems to back Jeremy Hunt in the Commons angered many Tories. The refusal of many Tories to back Lords reform angered many Lib Dems. The threat by the Lib Dems to oppose Tory-favouring boundary changes is angering many Conservatives. And so on and so on. Few say there is any threat of an early election; the polls suggest that would be little short of electoral self-harm. But relations are bruised. And those bruises have yet to heal.
Conclusion six: There's an effective opposition
Labour is doing better. Party leader Ed Miliband has appeared more confident in taking the fight to the government - and this has been on show in recent performances at prime minister's questions. The party's main spokesmen have been sharper in demanding urgent questions in Parliament, forcing the government to think again, embarrassing hapless ministers into retreat. All this is being reflected in more respectable opinion poll ratings. But while Labour might be a better opposition, it still has some way to go to be an alternative government. There are many unanswered questions about policy, not least its prescription for the economy and what spending the party would cut and when.
Conclusion seven: Roll on the autumn
The government is clearing the decks. Difficult decisions are being postponed - such as how to fund social care, how to cut windfarm subsidies, and how to tackle the lack of airport capacity in the south east of England. The aim is to get through to the party politics-free zone that is the Olympics (rows over security, ticketing and borders notwithstanding) and for the coalition parties to use the autumn conference season to relaunch the government. There will be a mid-term review of where the coalition has got to and where it is heading. There will be speeches aplenty appealing to their respective constituencies - such as welfare for the Tories, and liberty for the Liberals. And there will be reshuffles, if, of course, Mr Cameron can overcome his natural reluctance to wield the knife.
Final conclusion: Fundamentals unchanged
Much of the above is ephemeral. For all the ups and downs at Westminster in recent months, the fundamentals of British politics remain unchanged. The Treasury has no money. Spending will be cut for years to come. The eurozone crisis has not gone away. Growth is still flatlining. And the future of the economy remains utterly uncertain. Ministers may hope the Olympics will cheer the nation. But it will not solve its problems.