The other night I was asked to speak to members of Bright Blue which seems to be a virtual think tank committed to progressive conservativism. I found myself in the upstairs room of a pub talking to about forty people ranging from the kind I had expected – young, ambitious Tories of an ideological disposition which was in Margaret Thatcher’s time described as ‘wet’, to a couple of surprising faces, not only the great Sir Samuel Brittan but wasn’t that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown I saw sneaking in half way through?
Anyway, enough with the name dropping; Bright Blue asked me to speak for a few minutes on the subject of a Coalition political scorecard after twenty months in office. It’s a pity to prepare material and only use it once, so in my current psychologically enfeebled state I hope I will be forgiven reheating the main points for this post.
Four Coalition strengths:
David Cameron – Although he hasn’t managed Tony Blair’s initial achievement of reaching right across the social spectrum, the Prime Minister is an effective political leader. Most voters are willing to listen to him and feel that when he comes on the scene an issue is more likely to be gripped. He has also managed to keep a reasonable hold of his often fractious Party.
The Coalition – It’s not perfect but it works. If anything voters like the occasional rows, feeling reassured that different views are heard in Government. Nick Clegg’s brave willingness to sacrifice his Party’s and his own popularity in favour for the bigger prize of the Liberals becoming a credible Party of Government for the first time in three generations is commendable.
Austerity – Whatever one thinks of the policy and its impact, George Osborne has managed to retain a remarkable degree of public acquiescence to his bitter medicine. Labour’s inability to find an effective way to respond is one to two big reasons why they are still in doldrums.
Localism – It’s patchy, it’s incoherent and it mainly comprises the freedom to cut, but nevertheless localism is real and if we get good mayors in big cities it could become an irreversible shift.
Four Coalition weaknesses:
NHS – Not so much the policy (although that’s a mess) but the unbelievable hubris of gleefully knocking down a whole edifice and trying to build a new one (with a reduced budget) when all that was needed was to convert the loft and knock though a couple of walls – similar to when Frank Dobson dismantled the NHS internal market only for Alan Milburn to rebuild it.
Strategy – On the Big Society, on commissioning, payment by results and social impact bonds, and on the question of how one earth Whitehall is going to directly manage 2,000 schools; the lack of clarity reflects a tendency in some government circles to believe the very idea of strategy is ideologically unsound.
In touch – whether or not the austerity package is right (and Labour’s alternative is only a marginal shift) it is unquestionably hitting the poor and lower middle class hardest. At such a time it is vital for the Government to look as though they understand and care. Given the social background of most of the Conservative hierarchy it is perhaps unsurprising that few lower income votes think they do.
Hope for Britain – we know we have to go through pain because of past excess but it needs also to be to achieve some better future. The Coalition has not been good at articulating what this future is. The fact that we don’t even know the shape of country in which we will be living doesn’t help (I wrote this before Mr Cameron’s speech today so it may need some reappraisal).
So, here my four ticks and four crosses. Any other offers?