Scoring Cameron’s first 100 days

Posted by Richard D North under 'Power To The People!' / Dare to be dull / The Initiative Blizzard on 10 August 2010

David Cameron and his Con-Lib coalition have mostly impressed people interested in Britain’s governance as well as its politics. I am not quite so sure, yet…

I mostly agree with the mostly positive assessments of Rachel Sylvester (The Times, 10 August 2010), James Forsyth (The Daily Mail, 8 August 2010) and Philip Stephens (The Financial Times, 6 August 2010). But I think they miss the “better government” downside. Not least (I tackle it last, below), there seems to be a frankness deficit.

The good news is that we have a man who looks and sounds like a PM and we have a coalition situation which has revitalised Cabinet government.

The bad is that 1oo days of feverish activity has produced a lot of mistakes, especially as there’s a fair degree of arrogance about. And there is room for serious doubt as to the quality – the structure - of our current government’s policy-making and its commitment to its much-vaunted “quiet effectiveness“.

Here’s a list of things which have gone badly, so far. In ascending importance:

(1) Big moment gaffe

I didn’t admire DC’s populism in dealing with the Moat suicide. Sure, DC was disparaging those who saw Moat as a hero. But a  Christian or  liberal gentleman is still required to see that Moat was sad and mad rather than obviously bad. One can’t withdraw compassion toward him as DC suggested.  

(2) Diplomatic gaffes

I can’t see the point of David Cameron’s picking Turkey as the place in which to diss Israel, or India to diss Pakistan. Doesn’t good diplomacy and good manners (even manliness) require that one says tough things to one’s host rather than one’s host’s enemy? Blaming the Scot Nats (even if it was a long-standing view) for the Al Magrahi debacle was cheap and un-neighbourly.

(3) Initiative Blizzard

Here’s a partial list of proposals which look to have been lobbed at the public to show liveliness: Turning off the children’s database; snatching the kiddies’ milk; binning ASBO’s; dishing the Film Council;  realigning Ambassadors as tradesmen; dishing Labour’s planning system; dissing Qangoes. This looks like the New Labour behaviour we were supposed to be abandoning.

(4)  Bungling big reforms

On schools, University fees, NHS reform, police reform, planning and benefits we have fundamental reform being tackled at (I admit) varying speeds and with (I admit) varying degrees of open-mindedness. None of it looks like process designed to get widespread intelligent buy-in. (The benefits reform is a special case: IDS has a sort of special dispensation, and anyway has coralled special cross-party support for his CSJ initiatives.)

(5) Decentralisation

There is a lot of rhetoric but very mixed evidence of power shifting downwards and outwards from the centre. The centre still bosses people about (hospitals have been told to get rid of mixed wards, for example).  Whitehall will fix how much money pupils get as they choose schools, and GPs get as they buy medical facilities. Local authorities aren’t being given revenue-rasing powers. We have yet to see whether taxpayers will stop blaming central government when their tax gets spent in ways they don’t like, and especially when Post Code Politics kicks in.

Various considerations lob up.

(a) Consultation

All of the new ideas (I think) are subject to a new process, “Structural Reform Plans”, which constitute some sort of road map. Some have been tackled by White Papers which are open to (sometimes very brief) consultation. Some have been subject to consultation papers which will then lead to White Papers. But none of it looks like a consensual process with professional “actors” and government working together.

(b) Politics

It is quite possible that the Government wants to achieve some big stuff and thinks doing it fast and early is the most effective route, allowing “shock and awe” to see it through, and allowing time for the reforms to settle and work before an election. This is a high-risk strategy, but whatever else it is, it isn’t frank, or necessarily steady.

(c) The fiscal squeeze 

The overall ambition of fiscal reform may provide a rationale for getting this stuff done fast, so that the fit between the new, straitened budget and the new, lean state can be clearer.  But these reforms do not necessarily save money; indeed the reverse is often the case. So it’s harder to see the immediate hurry.

(d) The government has not let us see the strategy or tactics in much of its approach to policy, and still less to process. They may think only wonks care, and there’s something in that. But if ministers are aiming at good government, they should be proud to say so and show how their approach to business (the mean not the ends) fit a specifically “better government” agenda. Otherwise, the public, the Archipelago State, and the professions, will feel bused and manipulated. That can’t be clever.

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