Well, we’ve had, let’s see, a month of the now-old-hat Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, and the sky hasn’t fallen yet. I guess it still might, but then again, it might snow in London today too. The odds are probably similar. To date, I would have to say it’s been a bit smoother than most prognosticators thought it would be, somewhat to the dismay of the Tory right and the Lib Dem left. Now, personally, I would also have to say that I would put myself on the Lib Dem left end of things. But I’m not particularly unhappy. This is, I suspect, because (1) both Cameron and Clegg are turning out to be much smarter than anyone gave them credit for, and (2) while I expect I’ll be unhappy with some aspects of the final product, they pretty much seem to be doing the right things, and in the right order
Like what? Well, for a starter, rolling back some of the more egregious Labour violations of civil liberties, both potential and actual, including national id cards. Making some sensible environmental decisions, like cancelling the third Heathrow runway (BAA has also cancelled the Stanstead third runway proposal as well.) Pretty aggressively moving on a proposal that would dramatically change the composition of Parliament, and how MPs are elected, if passed and approved by the voters. Reducing some of the extraordinarily bloated government departments stocked by Labour when in power. Getting rid of a bunch of probably useless Quangos. And most importantly, trying to get to grips with the burgeoning UK deficit.
Now, you hear a lot about this, but what does this mean? It means that the UK has too much debt for the level of GDP it has. Actually, the outright debt levels aren’t horrible (something around 60% of GDP, a manageable level. But it as been rising sharply since 2002 as Labour kept borrowing and borrowing, and continues to rise at pretty scary levels.
Unlike Greece, there’s no near term liquidity issue. But the structural deficit in the current fiscal year is the worst of any OECD country.
Now, there are good arguments for not making aggressive cuts at a time when you want to try to grow the economy out of a recession. Paul Krugman keeps making these for the US, although it’s not clear to what effect, and Martin Wolf keeps making them for Europe—or at least the proposal that there should be a little more caution than we’re actually seeing. This is also complicated by the fact that more than half of the jobs created under the Labour government since 1997 were government jobs of some sort. But the UK budget situation is considerably more dire than that of the US, and I suspect that Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Cable all know this. There will undoubtedly be some lively internal discussion here. The process had something of a setback when Lib Dem (and former investment banker) David Laws, Osborne’s sdeputy over at Treasury, resigned after he divulged that he had improperly (although there are very extenuating circumstances here) claimed £40,000 in excess housing allowances here. It turns out that Laws is gay, but no one actually knew this. Including his parents, apparently.
So out Laws went, to be replaced by Danny Alexander, who had been Minister for Scotland, and who so far as we know is not gay. So the first scandal of the coalition has come and gone,, without much of a ripple, really. Laws is still an MP, and will undoubtedly be back.
What’s interesting isn’t that there will be cuts—that’s a foregone conclusion. What’s interesting is that, by and large, there does seem to be some serious thinking about where to make them without causing undue hardship. This will be tricky, because Osborne has already indicated that the costs will be severe. As a result, we have Osborne going around talking about targeting middle class benefits. Properly. Undoubtedly, there will be some cuts that will affect the poor. but there are clearly going to be more cuts that affect the middle classes—means testing certain benefits, for example. And I get the sense that whatever cuts are put through are going to be hashed out pretty thoroughly beforehand in terms of their potential impact. This is still theoretical, of course, but so far I haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe that we’re going to see a return to Thatcherism. Not only that, but there is now active talk about tax increases. So the cut in capital gains taxes that was bandied about during the campaign may be jettisoned as well. And the most interesting thing, perhaps? Public involvement. Much of this will be presented to the public before being implemented. I don’t know that this has ever been tried here before now, and who knows how it will work–Nigel Lawson, former Tory Chancellor under the last Conservative government, has expressed doubts. But it shows that at least there’s a lot of give and take among the people at the top. Which is what coalitions are for, I guess, and what has to happen in order for them to work. I hope they’re taking note of Simon Jenkins’s proposals for cutting the budget—eliminate Britain’s military forces. That would save a bundle right there, about 45 billion pounds right there.
So we’re getting to the crunch here, and this will be the real test of the coalition—whether they’ll be able to sell these cuts to Parliament. Assuming that Labour will oppose them, that means pretty much all the Tories and Lib Dems will be needed to get them passed. Which is the thing that gives me a bit of comfort—the natural Tory propensity for mindless cutting will be tempered by the need to keep the Lib Dems on board. Which is why we’re seeing cuts targeted at the middle class, not the poor.
Meanwhile, Labour has withdrawn into something of a well-deserved wilderness, with its current leadership race generating practically zero interest among anyone except a couple of intrepid political reporters. Not much interest among Labour supporters either, although this week’s frisson with backbencher John McDonnell and leaser candidate joking he wished he could go back in time and kill Margaret Thatcher, perked up some ears. McDonnell has since withdrawn his candidacy in favour of Diane Abbott, another backbencher with little broad support, although if I were a Labour voter she’s be the one what I would want heading up the party at the moment—she’s a refreshing change from the group of hopeless blowhards currently running for the leadership. Ed Balls has only been an MP since 2005, barely won re-election, is too closely identified with Gordon Brown, and has decided to play the anti-immigrant card. The Miliband brothers…well, I still can’t keep them straight, although I’m sure one of them is named Ed and one of them is named David.
None of this, of course, has stopped various political commentators from making fools of themselves. The reliably witless Barbara Ellen had a pointless column this past Sunday in which she accuses Vince Cable of, um, trying to make himself as well known as Osborne This is the sort of column that could only have been written by someone who had managed to not hear of Cable before the election. Ellen gives every sign of filling that bill. Her column is critical of Cable because he wants to rename the department he currently heads from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to the Department of Economic Affairs. Ellen thinks this is “believed to be both a power grab and a sign to George Osborne that he considers himself his equal. Oh dear.” Really. Ellen then keeps digging with the following:
This kind of tiring, grandstanding Carry On Coalition activity is exactly why many people, even some Labour voters, would have preferred a straight win by the Tories. The Lib Dems seem to be behaving like the party of low self-esteem, constantly wailing for assurances that they are valued and important: “Do you love us, David, do you really?”
Cable is emerging as one of the worst. Why do I keep seeing him pontificating in the papers? Why isn’t he holed up somewhere, busy with the deficit? It’s been said that Cable is the most likely to resign first because of his principles. Really? If his principles were that important he wouldn’t be there in the first place….
Put bluntly, Cable is not Osborne’s equal. If anything, he’s fortunate that he’s not been assigned to bring George’s morning cup of tea, with a tasty Garibaldi on the saucer.
Honestly, what can you do with some of these people? Find homes for them on Meet the Press, perhaps. Which just goes to show that the UK, for all its vaunted journalism, has “journalists” that are just as lazy, uninformed and intellectually-challenged as any in the US. Something for Americans to feel better about, I suppose, as they contemplate the prospect of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina spending a gazillion dollars in California over the next five months.