A month on in UK politics
If a week in politics is a lifetime, how long is a month? The General Election took place exactly a month ago today and it feels already as if the New Labour era has become enveloped in the mists of history; Gordon Brown has left the political stage – disappeared completely, indeed, since his resignation on 11 May – to be replaced by David Cameron.
Since then, as one might expect, virtually all attention has focused on the new government: a coalition forged between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, who failed to gain the large overall majority that, until the turn of the year, appeared to be more or less a foregone conclusion.
So, how has it done? Promising but not outstanding would, I think, be a fair assessment. Coalition negotiations proceeded behind closed doors for several days after the election – perhaps not the greatest advertisement for Open Government – and resulted in a compromise programme for government.
Inviting the Liberal Democrats to join the government and appointing some of their front-benchers to key portfolios, such as Vince Cable as Business Secretary and Chris Huhne as Environment Secretary, both gives them experience of office and spreads the responsibility across party lines for the deep cuts in public spending that are now well-nigh inevitable.
Attempting to raise the threshold for votes of confidence from a simple majority to 55% and declaring at the outset that this Parliament will last for a full five years seem, however, somewhat ill-advised. The former creates the potential anomaly of a Government that has lost the confidence of Parliament as conventionally understood – should 50% of MPs plus one no longer support it – yet but which cannot be dismissed.
The latter measure, although portrayed as the unilateral surrender by the Prime Minister of one of the Crown Prerogatives, in fact conveniently ignores the reality that the electorate expects the opportunity to pass its verdict on the government’s record every four years. The previous Parliament lasted five years and, by the end, it certainly felt like it.
David Cameron’s attempt unilaterally to change the membership rules of his 1922 Committee of backbenchers, giving ministers membership and voting rights, was an unforced error. Seen as a move to thwart the ambitions of one of his critics, Graham Brady, it appeared to suggest that he viewed his MPs with ill-concealed contempt. This contrasted badly with the close consultation that Nick Clegg offered his backbenchers as they entered the coalition.
After a year during which the reputation of virtually every politician and the wider system has been dragged through the mire, it appears that the electorate is broadly supportive of the principle of politicians from different parties seeking to work constructively together. The lack of repercussions over the resignation of David Laws as Chief Secretary to the Treasury last weekend, after he admitted paying rent from the public purse to his partner, suggests that it is willing, for now, to give the new men in charge the benefit of the doubt.
Given the toxic legacy of New Labour that they must address, this is probably just as well. Bequeathed a public sector debt mountain; a web of benefits that appears to encourage long-term dependency on the State; the triumph of rights over responsibility and the reflexive ‘health’n’safety’ culture that seeks to minimise litigation risk, to name but a few aspects, our new leaders are going to need all the goodwill they can muster.