Friday, 20 May 2011

The 'breakneck government' begins to slow down


Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my biggest criticisms of the present coalition government is that it has gone about things far, far too quickly. In an apparent backhanded compliment to the man top Tories apparently refer to in private as 'The Master' - Tony Blair - Ministers have decided to race through the legislative programme of a generation in just five years.

Well, now they're beginning to run into the sands. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Everywhere you look, there are confusions, u-turns, slowdowns, backtracks. Actually, this might be a bit of a good thing. Someone at the heart of government - probably George Osborne, the Conservatives' chief political strategist - has in any case apparently decided that enough is enough.

Doctor-led commissioning and a fullblown internal market in the NHS is currently 'paused' for 'consultation', while the Liberal Democrats make a big fuss about how they 'won't wear' some of the more radical plans for enforcing open competition from the centre. David Willetts dropped the hot brick of extra places for those who could pay full fees (say £12,000-£15,000 a year) in about the time it took for No. 10 to phone him and issue some threats. Utterly, utterly irresponsible plans for cutting coastguard services (above) to the bone and concentrating them on just a few regional centres are being shredded. That's not a party political point, either, by the way, as Tory MPs with knowledge or experience of maritime communities will attest. Reforms to the House of Lords have been left extremely vague - and probably won't pass anyway.

Why the sudden flight? Well, for one thing the Government is now running into some of the usual flak any administration has to face - Ken Clarke's dreadful Wednesday after some seriously misjudged remarks about rape just one case in point. For another, it's finding that the administrative burden of so many changes is just too heavy. Most of its 'business plan' statements are being scaled down or pushed back under the pressure. Remember when I said that 'single payments' schemes from the DWP would run into technical problems? Er, right again. And so on. And on.

But most of all, you'll have spotted that all the madcap schemes about might have had serious and nastly repercussions further down the line. A serious winter beds crisis, a tanker disaster in which many lives were needlessly lost, or a queue of rich undergraduates at every college door - all of them have the potential to bring down a Minister, a Department, or even the whole govenrment. The coalition has begun to look before it leaps, which can only be a good thing.

Whether the government will start to suffer serious reverses is another thing. Its electoral position - or at least Conservatives' prospects - aren't too bad. But it's at least possible that the life cycle of new administrations is speeding up under the pressure of a 24-hour media and a more demanding public. Attlee's 1945 government didn't slow up until the exceptionally harsh winter and power crisis of 1946-47; Wilson's 1964 victory didn't go truly sour until the devaluation of the pound in 1967; John Major had a couple of years of popularity until the ERM crisis of September 1992. Disillusionment with some of the present adminstration's plans seems to have set in more quickly.

Have Ministers' vast ambitions built a barrier to their own success? That remains to be seen. Watch this space...

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