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Not just broken but probably unfixable

May 24, 2016

 

Old-style politics came to town last week as former chancellor Ken Clarke shared some telling insights with a packed Swansea Bay Business Club event.

 

The tory grandee had wise words to offer. Yet as he himself cheerfully admitted, most of it fell on stony ground as the Conservative party becomes increasingly riven by the age-old argument of Europe.

 

Making his conference speech last October, David Cameron promised sweeping changes to fix a broken Britain.

 

Six months later, he and George Osborne stand accused of being the men largely responsible for splitting both the nation and their own party.

 

Nowhere has the discontinuity caused by internal argument been more acute than in the UK government’s glaring inability to meet its own parliamentary agenda.

 

Indeed, there must have been very few insiders at the Palace of Westminster who heard the Queen’s Speech last week and thought that any of it could actually be delivered.

 

After all, the record on the last one has been dismal.

 

Having promised to somehow slash a massive £12bn from the welfare budget, Osborne let it be known his big plan was to remove £4.4bn in the tax credits used to subsidise the income of the lowest-paid. The idea floundered spectacularly.

 

Whips were on the lookout for another backbench rebellion when the Chancellor attempted to trim benefits for the severely disabled. What they weren’t prepared for was the resignation of welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith who scuppered the "indefensible" cuts.

 

Governments with much bigger majorities have collapsed over less discord in the past, but somehow the Cameron administration has stumbled on, making further policy position ‘adjustments’ in the process.

 

Among these was the varying commitment to turn every school in England into an academy. When unimpressed tory MPs started sharing their misgivings with the media, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan very quickly watered down the proposals.

 

Ministers have similarly caved in over fox hunting, trade union reforms, junior doctor’s hours, and the exclusion of the NHS from international trade deals - although many feel these concessions have been distinctly tactical to boost pro-Europe campaign support.

 

Keeping things afloat with a slender working majority was always going to be a challenge. Making actual progress against the backdrop of a promised referendum – and one that has since become a party leadership election by proxy – is proving impossible.

 

Cameron is bringing out the big guns from all sides to press home his message that it is in Britain’s interest to stay in Europe. The next few weeks will see a constant barrage.

 

He could end up winning the argument but it will be at a massive personal and political cost.

 

There has not been a time in living memory when the instinct towards self-preservation has so spectacularly deserted the tories in Westminster.

 

With ministers openly making Pinocchio jibes at each other, the prospect of reforming a cabinet so as to remain a credible force in parliament, let alone government, is looking remote.

 

No-one can predict the outcome of this referendum, but an odd-on certainty is that the Conservative Party will never be the same again.

 

 

 

Put down the megaphone

 

Following a week of drama and deadlines, it seems matters have more or less settled down at Cardiff Bay.

 

Negotiations have produced a fairly workable solution, although what’s noticeable is that whilst there remain varying levels of expectation, all parties insist that the governance model must never, ever, be described as a “coalition”.

 

Carwyn Jones thinks it’s time to move on from theatre and intrigue. Maybe so, but he should expect further creative tension as Leanne Wood strives to ensure that Plaid’s influence is not overshadowed by Kirsty Williams’ inclusion in the cabinet.

 

Nonetheless, we have a few pragmatic signs. Dropping the proposed ban on e-cigarettes and local government reform are welcome steps. I feel certain that other similar mutually agreed moves will follow.

 

In the meantime, if the main players are serious about moving forward constructively then I’d urge them to put down the megaphone. Leave that sort of thing to Ukip.

 

 

 

Still lording it over democracy

 

A common trait in my line of business is that you read official stuff to check for what’s missing as much as what’s included.

 

One piece of significant news – from an anorak perspective anyway – is that last week’s Queen's Speech made no mention of House of Lords reform.

 

This is despite near-apoplectic ministers threatening all sorts of changes after peers inflicted 60 defeats on the Commons during the last parliamentary session.

 

A bill was promised to end the ability of the Lords to block what’s known in the jargon as ‘secondary legislation’. Nothing of the sort now looks likely.

 

Conspiracy theorists are running around claiming the omission is further evidence of sinister forces at work.  More probable is that party managers have other priorities.

 

Anyway, I can’t see many people getting excited at the continued existence of an un-elected body making laws, especially when so few think elections are worth the effort.

 

 

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