I’ve had chance only to scan-read today’s Coalition Mid-Term Review (with its rather grudging, adjective-free title,
Stuck Together in the national interest), but here are some initial impressions…
The economy takes centre-stage…
This may seem a statement of the obvious. And yet it’s worth comparing with the May 2010 document, Our programme for government (ahh, that Rose Garden-inspired ‘our’) in which subjects were sorted alphabetically so that you had to wait until chapter 9 to read about ‘deficit reduction’. Back in those days the Coalition blithely assumed the economy was on the mend: many of us reckoned the mid-term review rows would turn on the different Lib Dem / Tory approaches to spending the proceeds of growth. That’s not quite how it’s turned out, of course. So while in 2010 matters economic got about 5 pages spread out over 30, in 2013 the first 13 pages (out of 46) are dedicated to showing quite how seriously the Coalition now takes ‘fixing the economy’.
Plan A’s gone, so I guess that means we’re on Plan B
‘What is Plan A? Eliminating the structural budget deficit by the end of the Parliament? That was abandoned in 2011. Reducing the debt-GDP ratio in 2015-16? That went in the Autumn Statement. Setting DEL spending targets but allowing the “automatic stabilisers” which the Chancellor once described as a “key part of the flexibility built in to our plan” to function? The Autumn Statement dropped them too. So there is no “Plan A” anymore.
Here’s how the Coalition talked about it in May 2010:
We will significantly accelerate the reduction of the structural deficit over the course of a Parliament, with the main burden of deficit reduction borne by reduced spending rather than increased taxes.
And here’s the vaguer (albeit pragmatically inevitable) version it’s now morphed into:
We will continue to pursue our deficit reduction plan while protecting vulnerable groups and key long-term investments.
That’s quite a contrast. Especially when you remember the ringing words of the declaration on the back page of the May 2010 Coalition programme:
The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement.*
* Terms and conditions apply. Your Triple-A status could be at risk if you cannot keep up with your repayments.
The spending rows yet to come…
Until now I’d assumed the Coalition would simply set the spending envelope for 2015-16 (ie, the year after the Coalition is scheduled to conclude), recognising that detailed spending plans could scarcely be binding on a government of two parties about to contest national elections. But apparently not — here it is in black-and-white:
Before the summer, we will set out detailed plans for public spending [my emphasis] for the 2015/16 fiscal year, in line with the overall path of deficit reduction which we have already set out to 2017/18, to maintain economic stability and credibility, and ensure that we retain the confidence of international markets.
I fail to see the purpose in detailed plans for 2015-16. Obviously I can see how they’re helpful for those responsible for spending departmental budgets. But as they’re almost certain to change post-May 2015 (even if the current Coalition were to continue) that seems a rather artificial way to offer confidence to the markets.
… not least over Trident and wealthy pensioner allowances
The Lib Dems will go into the next election with at least two cashable public spending cuts that it looks very unlikely the Tories will match. First, a cheaper, effective alternative to Trident:
We will complete and publish the review of alternatives to Trident.
And secondly, an end to pensioner allowances for the wealthiest — just as child benefit for the wealthiest has also now been ended — something David Cameron has personally vetoed despite the inconsistency:
We have kept our Coalition Agreement commitment to protect key benefits for older people throughout this Parliament. These include the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences, free bus travel, and free eye tests and prescriptions.
This gives the Lib Dems a flexibility the Tories will lack come 2015.
Trade-offs in some policy areas…
For example, in transport policy there is something for both Lib Dems (re-commitment to massive railway expansion) and Tories (ditto for the road network). On employment, Lib Dems get shared parental leave, the Tories get shares-for-rights. And of course in energy policy, George Osborne is able to go frack the north of England while Lib Dems invest in renewables.
Agreement in others…
The Lib Dems may not want reminding of university finance, but it’s there anyway… though I suspect if it had been put as pithily by Vince Cable in selling the reforms in the first place they may have got a better hearing:
As a result of our reforms, up to a quarter of the poorest graduates will pay less over their lifetime than under the previous system, and all graduates will pay less per month than under the previous system.
Though there is little specific mention of Dilnot’s proposed reforms of social care in the Mid-Term Review (‘We have made it clear that we support its principles’) the mood music appears hopeful that this is one major piece of legislation where the two parties have found sufficient common ground, and which will be announced in the weeks to come.
The Leveson Report receives only a rather bland, passing reference:
We will continue to work on a cross-party basis towards the implementation of the Leveson Report on press regulation.
The words ‘in full’ are MIA.
And a vacuum in a few more.
Oh dear. Political reform — remember Nick’s brave words that the Coalition would bring about ‘The biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832’? He then found himself caught between the rock of hard-line Conservatives and the hard-place of conservative Labourites.
His two headline acts — electoral reform and Lords reform — both sunk without trace due to a combination of public apathy and political inertia. So what have we been left with? A few worthy-enough left-over bits ‘n pieces such as the power of MP recall and a statutory register of lobbyists. Even party funding reform is seemingly being kicked into the long grass of impasse:
We will pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics.
Until the next ‘big money corrupting politicians’ scandal breaks, when once again the Tories and Labour will declare themselves committed to reform… as long as it affects only the other side.
And what of civil liberties, you ask?
At first I thought the Data Communications Bill (aka internet snoopers’ charter) had been exiled entirely. Not so. Rather tellingly, it didn’t appear under the ‘Civil liberties’ section; instead it’s under ‘National security’
We will consider the report of the Joint Committee on the draft Communications Data Bill before bringing a new Bill to Parliament.
As for the rest of the civil liberties agenda, well it makes the political reform section look action-packed. Oh, and secret courts don’t, so far as I can see, receive a mention; though that’s more likely to be omission, I suspect, than the sound of an about-turn.
So there you have it…
That’s the Mid-Term Review. Much less radical than its predecessor, perhaps inevitably (and perhaps rightly: there’s no way anything more spiky would receive the support of Lib Dem members or David Cameron’s querulous backbenchers at this stage of play) — but also disappointingly. For all we know, this may be the Lib Dems’ last chance to be in government for a generation. It’s very likely to be Nick Clegg’s last bite at being Deputy Prime Minister. I can’t help feeling that, even if the Coalition implements everything that’s been promised today, we Lib Dems are going to look back on our period of government as one of missed chances and wasted opportunities. Yes, we’ve achieved a fair bit and learned a lot along the way. But this was our chance and I’m not sure we’ve — any of us — grabbed it as we should.
PS: three further points occurred to me subsequently, blogged about here.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.