The coalition’s first 100 days: an analysis

By Chris McCarthy

On Thursday May 6 the British electorate cast their votes in a general election that concluded with an historic coalition arrangement. The media erupted in hysterical spasm as swingometer convulsed in confusion and vitamin-D deficient constitutional academics were wheeled before the glare of studio lenses. The bonhomie between the prime minister and his deputy in their first joint press conference suggested the heralding of a new, refreshing political paradigm, born of political necessity but recognised as a transformative opportunity.

The joviality quickly dissipated, usurped by the task of governance. The coalition has undertaken its first 100 days at a frenzied pace, precipitated by a frustration forged in decades of opposition. But while those first months have sign-posted the ideological intent of this essentially centre-right government, its actions have been conducted in the shadow of savage spending cuts that will ultimately come to define its legacy.

The ‘five days that changed Britain’ as the main political parties fumbled to produce a working government are now a hazy memory. But the optimism fostered by the subsequent entente-cordiale between the Conservatives and Lib Dems endured until the Emergency Budget on June 22. The implications of the Treasury’s commitment to cut the deficit deflating excitement at the country’s “historic new direction.”

The Emergency Budget was forewarned during the campaign but it was an unscheduled event that first challenged the coalition. David Laws resignation as chief secretary to the Treasury following details of rent payments to his partner never threatened to derail the nascent government, but it served as an unwelcome reminder of a sordid saga. Tory and Lib Dem high command were quick to praise the intelligence and talent of a man “put on earth” to do the job and the episode bonded the leaders yet closer.

The electorate had less sympathy, however, and they still remain sceptical over a return to government for the former investment banker. Intelligence and talent are but part of the jigsaw of a successful politician. A failure of judgment – irrespective of motivation – cost David Laws his cabinet seat and delivered an early blow to the coalition’s credibility. Campaign slogans of a need for ‘change’ and to ‘try something different’ began to look as shaky as Tony Blair’s claims of a government ‘purer than pure’.

The resignation came four days after the Queen’s Speech, a ceremony better remembered for its pomp and pageantry than its legislative content. 23 bills were presented to Parliament with personal victories for both coalition partners. The European Bill (requiring a referendum on any future treaties handing powers to the EU),  the Welfare Reform Bill and Academies Bill together assuaged Tory euro-sceptics and signaled the party’s intention to roll-back a bloated welfare state while giving greater autonomy to successful schools.

To the Liberals, though welcome in part by the Tories, went the Freedom and Parliamentary Reform Bills, the latter subsequently challenged by the House for its required threshold of 55% of MPs to vote for a dissolution of parliament. The scrapping of ID cards and the National Insurance Contributions Bill, blocking next year’s 1% rise in NI contributions, were quick to enact crowd-pleasing measures shared by both parties and relatively cost neutral.

This parliament’s legislative agenda however, will be heavily constrained by what’s affordable – far more so than previous sessions – and defined less by what’s desirable. The apparently ‘not-so-urgent’ Emergency Budget, accelerated the government’s commitment to deficit reduction in a package of measures criticised by the Institute of Fiscal Studies as “regressive.” George Osborne has robustly defended the government’s austere plans, claiming it would be a greater injustice to continue spending beyond our means. Former chancellor Alistair Darling and TUC general secretary Brendan Barber have recently joined the chorus of voices arguing that the breadth and severity of the cuts risk “derailing the recovery” by taking too much money out of the public sector too quickly.

This fiscal policy dichotomy will dominate the political agenda for years to come and not until the Comprehensive Spending Review in October will we have a better understanding of who the public think is winning the argument. For every David Blanchflower warning of a double-dip recession if our current path of fiscal austerity is pursued, there is a Richard Branson arguing that spending cuts are urgently needed to retain market confidence.

The line between ideological commitment to a smaller state and the pragmatic need for reductions in state investment became blurred long ago. Unfunded profligate Labour spending was unsustainable but the supposed ‘softening effect’ of the Lib Dems never materialised. No prime minister wants to inherit the public finances bequeathed to Cameron, Osborne and co., but the financial situation has given the Tories cover to attack certain pillars of the welfare state, a process begun under Margaret Thatcher.

The government has been remarkably busy in its first 100 days and while many commentators have forecast inevitable rifts – personal and policy – in the coalition, the greater threat to the sustainability of the arrangement has come from within.

Cameron’s brash attempts to weaken the historically troublesome 1922 committee by forcing a ministerial presence at their parliamentary meetings endeared him to few on the party’s right. Building on Conservative Central Office’s “heavy hand” during the candidate selection process, the Tory leader has shown chubby fingers when dealing with delicate matters of party unity. Notoriously swift at discarding unwanted leaders, Tory backbenchers and activists will grow mercilessly impatient if Cameron’s apparent wanton disregard persists. The election of right-wing coalition critic, Graham Brady, as committee chairman was a deliberate v-sign to perceived meddling from Tory high command.

Clegg is afforded less manoeuvrability than Cameron within the confines of the party’s ‘triple lock’ system but frustration and disharmony within the party rank and file remains difficult to hide and in Deputy Leader Simon Hughes they have a popular conduit for their grievances. Even before the polls showed plummeting support for the Lib Dems, they always stood to lose more from this coalition than the Tories.

The first 100 days have not been without their gaffes and incidents but the prime minister has looked assured and confident in the role while his deputy has clearly relished the historic opportunity. But besides the frenzied negotiations following an indecisive vote, little from these first months in office will be accorded much significance in the annals of history. Britain is entering an age of austerity unparalleled in our modern history. The severity of the spending cuts announced in the Autumn will define our country for decades. Amidst the choppy growth and uncertain future, few will remember the jokes, the guffaws and the resignations.

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