By Peter Riddell - 7th January 2013
Responding to the Coalition Mid-Term Review, Institute for Government director Peter Riddell says the challenge for the two parties now is to 'reconcile governing' with their preparations for the 2015 election.
All governments have to renew themselves in mid-term as the initial excitement and enthusiasm of office fades, problems mount and popularity drops. It is even harder for coalitions which have to juggle the interests of two or more different parties. They have to work together in government until election day while, in the second half of the parliament, they increasingly differentiate themselves as they start preparing for the next general election.
That is a familiar dilemma in most of the rest of Europe and in other parts of the UK but it is a novelty at Westminster, as the Institute for Government set out last June in our report ‘A Game of Two Halves’ written by Akash Paun.
Judged by these constraints, the Mid-Term review is about the most that was realistic to hope. It is primarily a stock-take, a list of ‘achievements’, along with continuing pledges and those not yet implemented. It is bound to be selective, setbacks are delicately brushed aside in euphemistic phrases, while there is a Panglossian belief that all will now turn out for the best.
What is missing from the review, predictably and inevitably, is any recognition of how the coalition intends to handle major issues where the parties have differences— over relations with the EU and, particularly, the promised referendum; energy; and the allocation of spending cuts for the post-election year 2015-16 ( to be resolved by this summer).
The hardest challenge now will be to reconcile governing and preparations for the 2015 election; co-existence and competition. David Cameron and Nick Clegg said all the rights words about working together until May 2015, but how they will handle their fractious MPs ( and quite a few ministers) and party activists? It will also be a big, and new, challenge for the civil service to handle divergences between the coalition parties. We are used to having just one party in government. Having two, whose interests are different, will require new pre-election conventions and understandings.
Many of the actions still to take are inevitably familiar. The real question is not whether they are fresh, a vacuous pursuit of novelty for its own sake, but whether they are likely to be achieved. For instance, several of the promises on political reform dating from 2010, to introduce a statutory lobbyists’ registers, to reform party funding, to introduce a power of recall for errant MPs and to consider proposals to prevent the misuse of parliamentary privilege, are already on the backburner.
The Institute for Government welcomes the pledges to ‘improve management information and ensure it is used as a basis for board meetings, operational decisions and appraisals of senior officials’; to continue to push for greater transparency; to publish ‘for the first time a five year Capabilities Plan for the Civil Service to identify which skills and capabilities are in deficit, and how to address these shortcomings; and to implement rigorous performance and talent management’. But we will be increasingly looking for evidence of real change rather than further promises.