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‘It was David Laws in the Treasury with the scissors’

Last Updated: Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Dear subscriber,

Wow! What an eventful ten days. It’s difficult to know where to begin but Paul Goodman, Jonathan Isaby and I will be upping the pace over the next few weeks as we interpret the significance of the new Coalition Government.

We have a series of events in the planning that Bryony will let you know about shortly. They include events focused on the autumn party conference in Birmingham; Conservative innovation in local government; and the work of Tory MEPs.

‘It was David Laws in the Treasury with the scissors’

Perhaps the most significant part of the Coalition deal was the decision to put a Liberal Democrat into the Treasury as George Osborne’s Number Two. This, I understand, was Osborne’s idea. The easy thing for the Liberal Democrats would have been to have taken one less Cabinet portfolio but for all of them to be spending ministries. With Laws as Chief Secretary to the Treasury the Liberal Democrats are implicated in the difficult fiscal decisions. Laws and Osborne will work well together. Both are economic and social liberals differing substantially only on the issue of foreign policy, where Osborne is hawkish.

The Treasury team has got off to a flying start – promising to allocate departmental cut totals by next Monday. Deficit reduction will be the defining feature of the Coalition and it is right that the two partners share the burden.

Areas of policy discontinuity… and continuity

One of the best features of the Cameron operation in opposition had been continuity of appointment. Cameron – despite talk of him being ruthless – doesn’t like sacking people and also likes frontbenchers to become masters of their briefs. The Coalition deal forced him to make much bigger changes than he would have liked. Considerable talents are now on the backbenches. Stand out examples include Adam Afriyie (Science), James Brokenshire (Home affairs), David Burrowes (Justice) and Stephen Hammond (Transport). All had interesting plans that may suffer from the discontinuity. It is also disappointing to see the likes of Alan Duncan move from prisons (where his work on rehabilitation was promising) and Stephen O’Brien from health.

Two downshuffled Tories have, however, landed in spots where their experience could make them more formidable. They are Nick Herbert who has gone to his old bailiwick of police reform and similarly Greg Clark to an area of former specialism, decentralisation. They could be two great radical ministers. The other five policy areas where most radicalism can be expected are: Michael Gove (schools); Iain Duncan Smith (welfare); John Hayes (skills); Chris Huhne (climate change); and Vince Cable (banks). We’ll examine each of these areas in turn in future Letters.

William Hague is not Basil Fawlty

Many reporters seem to believe that William Hague is some sort of head-banging, swivel-eyed Eurosceptic (the same silly language is always used) who will now be restrained from Basil Fawlty-style insults to our European allies by the LibCon deal. In reality William Hague has been a much more pragmatic figure for a good five years. He was cautious about Tory MEPs leaving the EPP in shadow cabinet, has relaxed traditional Conservative support for Israel and opposed the surge of troops led by General Petraeus in Iraq.

Foreign policy – including European policy – will be remarkable for its similarity to what went before. The continuity of European policy will be reinforced by the Coalition deal but that much was also obvious last autumn when Hague and Cameron ‘long-grassed’ the European issue when they announced no post-Lisbon referendum.

The replacement of Mark Francois with David Lidington as Europe spokesman confirms this. Lidington – a long-term Hague aide – is no Europhile but he’s a pragmatist. He’ll put a premium on good relations with European counterparts.

The number of SPADs should be the Coalition’s first U-turn

Every new administration has teething problems but one of the biggest teething problems for this new administration has been the appointment of special advisers. Downing Street ideally wants a communications-focused SPAD per Cabinet minister but if departments are only allowed one SPAD that denies the Cabinet minister a policy-focused aide. In opposition the Conservatives had believed a reduction in the number of SPADs was a good way of cutting the cost of politics but – almost inevitably – they are now regretting the lack of political muscle that a reduced number would mean. Reversing the SPADs promise should be Cameron’s first U-turn. Restricting the number doesn’t save much money and, more importantly, they’re vital to drive through policy.

Recommended reads

I’d recommend three pieces from ConservativeHome from the last week:

First, ConHome’s General Election Review which examines the strengths and, in particular, weaknesses of the Tory election campaign. Some of the stories of dysfunctionality in David Cameron’s office need to be addressed if problems in government are to be avoided. Link: http://conservativehome.blogs.com/generalelectionreview/

Second, Paul Goodman’s warning to the new MPs that they are about to face a period of blood, sweat, toil and tears. Link: http://is.gd/cd5k6

Third, Cameron’s determination to focus on winning over voters in Scotland, in the public sector and in BME communities. Link: http://is.gd/cd5nV

As always please call me on 0771 726 1570 if you have any questions about this Letter.

Tim.

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