ALL GOVERNMENTS eventually run out of steam. John Major discovered that after a decade of Thatcherism, as did Gordon Brown as he struggled to make good the fag end of New Labour’s third term. Having run out of ideas and momentum, such administrations tend to drift. In other words, they make things up as they go along.
Remarkably, the present UK Coalition Government has run out of steam after only two years. Indeed, it could be argued that it ran out of steam well before now. It is now drifting, reduced to a reactive rather than a proactive agenda infused with a heavy dose of wishful thinking. There is no discernable strategy beyond hoping for economic recovery.
It would be generous to say the Coalition has run out of ideas, but there were precious few in the first place. The Big Society was cobbled together at the last minute and swiftly abandoned once its essentially fluffy core disappeared into the ether. Constitutional reform (House of Lords and localism) has withered on the vine; deficit reduction has not been the expected panacea.
In opposition, David Cameron looked promising. He repositioned the Conservatives in the Centre, where they’ve always done best (ideologically and electorally), detoxified the Tory brand in important ways (the NHS and the environment), tried his best to re-engage with Scotland and generally played a blinder in terms of setting the agenda.
Much of this has been squandered in government. There’s been a lurch to the Right, certainly in rhetorical terms, while a botched NHS reform Bill has undone most of Cameron’s legwork as Leader of the Opposition. The battle to save the Union, curiously, is perhaps the only element of the Coalition agenda that is going to plan.
As usual, the Conservative Right convince themselves that if only the party fights a properly right-wing campaign (unlike in 2010) then all will be well. Romney’s Republicans peddle a similar analysis. Neither is likely to work. But Cameron’s problem goes deeper than that. He can’t win on the Right, nor could he win on the Left two years ago.
In truth, the Conservatives long ago ceased to be the natural party of government. It must be sobering for those who remember that it last managed a convincing majority in 1987 and has been in gradual decline ever since. Having once been a truly national party, Tories remain an endangered species everywhere north of the Humber.
What, then, of the Liberal Democrats? If the Conservatives are in a bad way, then their junior Coalition partners are faring even worse. Nick Clegg says the Tories have “welched” on their agreement to reform the House of Lords, and this is certainly true. But instead of quitting or renegotiating the Coalition agreement the Lib Dem leader is reduced to sniping from the sidelines.
Even the best-case scenario – modest (and it can only be modest) economic recovery – is not necessarily good news for the Lib Dems, for the Conservatives would inevitably get most of the credit. The only sensible strategy is damage limitation: quit the Coalition well ahead of the 2015 general election, install Vince Cable as leader and have a long hard think about policy. Under that scenario, near-total wipeout might be averted.
The Lib Dems, however, show no such inclination, instead the business of Coalition government, such as it is, grinds relentlessly on. The latest crisis – that over the House of Lords – looks, as usual, choreographed; indeed Gary Gibbon of Channel 4 News trailed the quid pro quo of the Lib Dems scuppering the boundary review several months ago.
Such compromises are the inevitable by-product of any coalition deal, but they are not enough in themselves. Ministers will doubtlessly claim that sorting out the economy remains the government’s raison d’être, but even that important goal is in the doldrums. Domestically, all that remains are Iain Duncan Smith’s inevitably unpopular plans for welfare reform and Michael Gove’s free school revolution.
It’s still pretty thin fare. I can’t help feeling the structure of government is part of the problem. Comprising the so-called Quad are two political couples – Cameron & George Osborne and Nick Clegg & Danny Alexander – who are close and therefore unlikely to air unpleasant realities. There’s no one at a senior level capable of standing back and saying, in short, “Get a grip”.
Labour, meanwhile, ought to be reaping the benefits of this vacuum, although polling suggests a much more modest lead than might be expected in the circumstances. One suspects that Ed Miliband, though much improved since his election as Leader of the Opposition, still hasn’t sealed the deal with the British electorate. In that respect, it might already be too late.
Governments can, of course, reinvent themselves. Mrs Thatcher’s first term also went badly – economically and politically – for at least two years. The Iron Lady was saved by financial recovery and a war in the Southern Atlantic. Neither looks likely to happen any time soon, but this Coalition needs something to regain its mojo – and fast.