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Whatever happened to coalition caution?

Mark Easton | 16:14 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

When power changes hands, the dynamics shift in subtle ways. For a time, we try to make the pieces fit into the existing frame, to analyse the new game as though it is being played by the old rules. But when events don't quite add up we are forced to reassess. I think we are in that period now, after almost 100 days of a new British government.

Cabinet meetingFew predicted the election result and its consequences, and the creation of the coalition was conducted to the noise of head-scratching pundits. A story-line was hurriedly developed to try and make sense of it all.

The tale was of a forced marriage doomed to fail, of profound philosophical differences eating away at the foundations of the governmental relationship.

The precarious nature of the arrangement would make radical policy impossible, it was assumed, an administration paralysed by the fear that any dramatic movement might bring the whole edifice crashing down.

But it hasn't really happened like that. The accepted principles of adversarial and tribal British politics have not played out in the way many had anticipated. There may well be cold shoulders and hot tempers within the coalition, inevitable tensions and disagreement, but there has been little to suggest the kind of internecine warfare that existed within New Labour from the moment it entered Downing Street.

As for the argument that consensus politics would translate as cautious politics, well, the first three months suggest the opposite. When people read the claim in the coalition's programme for government that it had "the potential for era-changing, convention-challenging, radical reform", the response from many was "yeah, yeah, yeah..."

But there can be no question that the wind has changed in Whitehall, driven by economic necessity perhaps, but around some departmental corners the squalls have an unexpected freshness and bite.

PrisonFew predicted the kind of major reform emerging from Richmond House, the Department of Health, signalling a rebalancing of power in the NHS in England. The noises coming from the Ministry of Justice suggest a philosophical rethink on the nature of punishment and rehabilitation.

The Department for Education appears unflinching in its resolve to push through significant change to England's state school system. The Home Office hints at a change of direction with a consultation on getting rid of Asbos and a determination to introduce elected police commissioners in England and Wales. Plans for electoral and constitutional reform are hardly uncontroversial either.

All of this as the machinery of government negotiates huge and deeply unpopular cuts to public spending.

This is a bold (critics will say reckless) government, not timid, and the narrative for the coalition needs urgently to be updated. If energies are focused looking for tiny cracks in the ship's hull, passengers and crew are not in position to shout "iceberg!" or "land ahoy!" as required.

It is far too early to know whether it can deliver, but almost without being noticed, the coalition has embarked on what Francis Maude can reasonably claim to be the most radical programme of any new government for 30 years. We would all benefit from careful scrutiny of the published policy plans as the detail emerges, not allowing our concentration to be broken by mesmerising whispers of backroom plots.

The combination of coalition and financial crisis has, curiously, given David Cameron's government more, not less, room to be radical. The administration knows it will be deeply unpopular anyway as the cuts bite and so there is not so much to lose in being audacious in other areas.

Coalition politics seems to strengthen the hands of departments which, within our political system, already enjoy more autonomy than their counterparts in other countries. It is as if, apart from the odd expletive from Andy Coulson, No 10 is content to practice the kind of hands-off decentralisation within Whitehall that the Conservative manifesto preached for the country more generally.

What effort there is from the centre to control the machine is being channelled through the Treasury as ministers negotiate their budgets ahead of the autumn statement.

The risk, as others have pointed out, is that the government opens up too many fronts and loses control. That may indeed sum up the new political narrative for the autumn - a government over-excited by the possibilities of power is in danger of exhausting itself before the real challenge of public-sector cuts has even begun.

But then again, perhaps there'll be another unexpected twist to the story-line?


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