Time for Cameron to do some pruning
When spring arrives in England, the Prime Minister likes to roll up his sleeves and do a spot of gardening at his constituency home. This year, he’ll have to find another way to pass the time. The police can only protect him properly in Oxfordshire by taking up post in the garden, and his wife, Sam, overheard her children enthusing about their guns. So it’s Chequers for the Camerons this April, where the protection officers can be both more effective and less obtrusive. And instead of pruning the roses, Cameron can turn his attention to the thorny problems of government.
High time, too, in fact, because not everything in the rose-garden coalition is flourishing. The Liberal Democrats are, to the irritation of their Tory colleagues, becoming increasingly aggressive in the run-up to the elections on 5 May and the referendum on electoral reform. As the Lib Dems pour scorn on Andrew Lansley’s attempt to reorganise the National Health Service, the chumminess of that first press conference seems a long time ago.
The Health and Social Care Bill is the most urgent problem facing Cameron. In an unusual move, he has ordered the bill to be ‘paused’ so that he can listen to concerns about its impact. This is just stalling. Ultimately, Cameron must decide whether to abandon the bill, amend it or press ahead.
Cameron thinks it is crucial to persuade NHS workers of the benefits of change. He believes that if they support the bill, the public will follow. And the trick is to win them over without diluting the reforms too much. The challenge, one ally remarks, is ‘not giving away the shop but not seeming so inflexible that it doesn’t seem like a genuine conversation’. Inside Downing Street, this exercise is being regarded as ‘the supreme test of Cameron’s communications skills’.
Tory Cabinet ministers warn against offering too many concessions to the Liberal Democrats on the bill. They say that these sweeteners often have unintended and disastrous consequences. To prove their point, they point to the cap on university tuition fees, which was put in place to keep the junior coalition partners happy, but is now causing problems. In an open market, the University of Central Lancashire wouldn’t think it could charge the same as Cambridge University. But then, as one Cabinet minister puts it, ‘sometimes the Liberal Democrats don’t know what’s in their best interests.’
Another Tory complains that one of the most controversial parts of Lansley’s bill — the abolition of primary care trusts — is a result of trying to make the Tory policy mesh with the Lib Dem one. There is a feeling among Tories that the Lib Dems are a yellow weed growing over all sorts of good Conservative policies.
Cameron’s next problem is when to prune the government’s ranks.The ministers he appointed last May have been a mixed bag. There have been unexpected successes. Theresa May is one. May and Cameron have become increasingly close as they deal with security issues. She is, I’m told, ‘increasingly central to the whole thing’. Eric Pickles has flourished in the Department for Communities and Local Government. The same cannot be said for Ken Clarke at Justice. He has engulfed the government in a series of rows over the punishment of criminals that it would rather have avoided while it was
April could be the cruellest month for the coalition, as the two parties gear up for the referendum on AV
cutting police numbers. The result is that a new poll shows that 57 per cent of the public are disappointed that the coalition hasn’t been tougher on crime.
But Cameron remains determined not to alter his front bench until March 2012. This means that none of the junior ministers who have impressed can be promoted until then. This should at least provide a steady stream of guests for Newsnight. Since word got round that Cameron watches the show, ministers — who used to try and dodge a Paxman grilling — have been eager to appear on it. If a minister does well, they receive a congratulatory text from the Prime Minister himself. This might not seem much reward for going 12 rounds with Jeremy Paxman, but these texts are treasured by those who receive them. They are kept and shown, in moments of pride, to friends and family. Conversely, one minister thought he had performed well on the show recently but message came there none.The next morning he started asking about the PM’s diary, trying to find out whether Cameron had been otherwise engaged that evening.
What really concerns Cameron is the green shoots of economic recovery.Without a return to growth, voters will not be impressed by anything else that the coalition does. As part of that drive for growth, a new policy will come into effect this week that will see domestic regulations removed unless a minister can justify their remaining. The idea is that ministers will be reluctant to be personally associated with burdensome regulations and so the presumption will move in favour of scrapping them, so companies should face less petty bureaucracy about what they can and cannot do.The policy is the brainchild of Steve Hilton, who believes that, without radical deregulation, there will not be enough new businesses to kick-start the economy again. But nothing can be done about the constant growth of European regulations while Britain remains in the European Union, so the effectiveness of this policy will be limited.
April could be the cruellest month so far for the coalition, as the Lib Dems seek to re-establish their identity by picking fights with their coalition partners and as the two parties gear up to take opposite sides in the increasingly rancorous referendum on the alternative vote.
The days and weeks that follow the referendum will test the coalition like nothing else has. In Downing Street, they talk about the tsunami that is about to hit them. Aides are busy drawing up two alternative government agendas for the week after the referendum: one packed with goodies for the Lib Dems if AV is rejected, and one full of red meat for the Tories if it passes. Cameron and Clegg are yet to have a meeting about these alternative agendas. But the pair of them must remember that the coalition has to keep cultivating its garden together, whatever the result of the referendum.
Spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse The battles as they happen the spectator | 9 April 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk