Published by Andrew Haldenby on 8 February 2016
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4 January 2016
The Prime Minister’s New Year Message received a D minus from the Financial Times in its leader today (£). The pink ‘un bemoaned the Government’s “restlessness abroad and inertia at home”. It warned that there are “no public service reforms as dramatic as those visited on education in his first term”. It described the permanent procrastination on a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick as “politics at its narrow and nimbyish worst”. Happy New Year, Mr Cameron.
One of the FT’s themes is that Number 10 amassed a “mountain of political capital in 2015”, which it should enthusiastically spend. I suspect that isn’t quite what it feels like in Government. The Conservative majority in Parliament is a scant 16, compared to (say) Tony Blair’s equivalent figures of 179 in 1997 and 167 in 2001. While the Opposition may be inward-looking, as Andrew Marr argued yesterday (£), there are plenty of other interest groups willing to hold up the Government’s programme. Step forward, the BMA.
The Government could rightly say that it has a suite of reforms that are changing British policy completely (even if these policies aren’t the ones that Ministers talk about most often). The biggest spending areas are pensions, the NHS and working-age welfare. Later retirement ages and auto-enrolment to private pensions offer the hope of more sustainable pensions in future. The Five Year Forward View is a comprehensive plan for the future of English healthcare. Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel are moving on to reforms to sickness benefits, where a great deal of change is needed. We can add academies and free schools, reforms to prisons, changes to the Ministry of Defence, and interesting Whitehall reforms such as the Government Digital Service. Put all this together and it does look something like the “great reforming decade” that Mr Cameron wrote about.
The problem for the Government is that there are a raft of policies that point in the other direction. The pensions triple-lock drives up costs in the medium term. On 1 January David Cameron himself wrote about spending more on the NHS rather than changing it (“record levels of funding for the NHS”). Whitehall reform has disappeared since Francis Maude departed the Cabinet Office. The Treasury emphasised higher spending in the Spending Review. This is not a “great reforming decade” but a series of decisions ducked, all of which store up trouble for the future.
The Government’s problem is not inertia as much as inconsistency. The Prime Minister could do worse than put his personal authority behind his genuine reforming policies, full stop. Here are four of his own policies for David Cameron to push in 2016: