My mid-term reivew for the Coalition
We are now almost exactly half-way through the current Parliament, so now seems a good time to take a tour d’horizon. It makes for a rather depressing sight.
The Coalition continues, albeit with little and waning enthusiasm on either side. David Cameron, to borrow Norman Lamont’s bon phrase, appears to be in office rather than in power. Yesterday, in exchange for securing a single yes/no response to the independence question, he conceded to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond that (some) 16 and 17 year-olds shall have the right to vote in the 2014 Scottish referendum.
This was unnecessary in two senses: without consulting Parliament, Cameron set a precedent that campaigners for lowering the voting age will now exploit at every opportunity; and more importantly, he appeared to forget that, as Prime Minister, he had the constitutional power to delegate to Mr Salmond as he saw fit, not vice versa.
Mr Cameron made a solid conference speech last week, in which he expounded principle rather than announcing policy gimmicks; to win a majority next time, as Ian Martin observes, he needs to demonstrate that he is driven by conviction and his party should show much less public obsession about marginal seat strategies and getting the constituency boundaries review past the Liberal Democrats.
Nick Clegg, the rear end of the prime ministerial pantomime horse, is scarcely expected to contest the next General Election as LibDem leader even by his own party. His mea culpa on the eve of his party’s conference was parodied within 24 hours and went viral on YouTube, probably garnering more views than any of his other speeches ever have done.
Moving swiftly on, in copying David Cameron’s ‘look, I’m speaking from memory’ gambit from 2007, Ed Miliband surpassed admittedly low expectations, although the novelty of the ‘unplugged speech’ has now worn rather thin. By seeking to appropriate Disraeli’s One Nation mantra, he clearly thought that he was making an audacious raid on enemy territory, yet his rhetoric was undermined by the way he demonised anybody considered ‘rich’ by the comrades. Uncontrolled immigration during the Labour years has also eroded notions of national cohesion.
So much, then, for the personalities. The economy continues to flat-line and, whilst the deficit is being brought under control, it is certainly not happening within this Parliament, as the Chancellor originally envisaged. The national debt has now ballooned to over £1 trilliion, yet Labour’ continual refrain is that we are cutting the deficit too far, too fast. What part of their outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s jokey hand-over note, ‘Sorry, there’s no money left’ don’t they understand?
Energy policy and overseas aid are both being driven by unrealistic and arbitrary targets. Seeking to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, a policy first adopted by Ed Miliband when in government, would probably involve closing down any remaining manufacturing in the UK and entail regular power cuts for the rest of us. Wind farms and tidal power can meet only – and intermittently – a fraction of national electricity demand the economy. As Christopher Booker writes, conventional power stations would need to be brought in and out of service to make the shortfall: as with stop-start driving, it is not an efficient way to burn fuel.
David Cameron sticks by his pledge to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid each year as ‘the right thing to do’. Charity is indeed a laudable activity when the money is directly yours to give away; there is a case for our government to support longer term medical and education projects, in addition to short-term famine and disaster relief, in deserving nations less fortunate than our own. When the key objective becomes expenditure of a given budget before the end of the year, however, the worth of the project being funded takes secondary importance. As David Cameron rightly said in its conference speech, the government should never forget that it is money as taxpayers that it is spending. In fact, strictly speaking, it is largely our creditors who are funding its pet projects.
We continue to be mired in Afghanistan, yet further redundancies in the armed forces take effect in the New Year. With President Kirchner periodically rattling her sabre against the Falkland Islands, there is surely no way that we would be able to assemble the naval Task Force that liberated them 30 years ago.
On our doorstep, President Barroso is calling for another treaty that will finally create the European state originally envisaged in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Clearly, the near- collapse of the Euro beneath the weight of its contradictions is just another opportunity rather than an existential threat to ‘the European project’. The award of the Nobel Peace prize to the EU this year, as the Greeks greet Chancellor Merkel on her visit to Athens with ironic Nazi salutes, is sadly beyond satire.
The European crisis ought to present David Cameron with the casus belli he needs for our withdrawal but, despite my previous optimism, he refuses point-blank to do so. Surely he must realise that this stance continues to drive ever more of his core vote into the arms of UKIP? At the very least, he fatally undermines his position in negotiating better terms for us as part of any treaty deal. With some 80% of our laws originating from the EU, withdrawal is to me simply the necessary first step to being able to revitalise the economy and society on our own terms.
There are certainly bright spots. Michael Gove is doing a good job in restoring rigour to education and Iain Duncan-Smith should be able to claim his place in history for reform of the welfare system, controversial though it is at present. The Olympics and Paralympic Games cheered the nation and showed that we could deliver big infrastructure projects on time, even if not on budget.
In 2010, 100 days into the start of the Coalition, my sense then was that it was doing well at the time. It needs to start doing much better very soon.