The diary comments of an anonymous “senior civil servant” may be the bleat of on old school fuddy duddy who can’t stand change and has decided to behave badly. And yet they ring true – especially after the warning that came from no less than Tony Blair last week, that new ministers without any previous experience have to learn the job better and spend a lot more time on policy. There is a fundamental dilemma between adopting the “100 days” strategy to hit the ground running and the caution that was in fact chosen by Blair-Brown in 1997.
For the coalition though, the problem is far more serious than in Labour’s new dawn. That was an era of cautiously expanding opportunity. This is a time of austerity. And coalition policies are an amalgam of compromise pulled together in under a week.
At the top, the coalition looks comfortable. But after less than 10 weeks, the question is starting to be asked: Can they make the cuts stick? If not, then what? Rebellion is momentarily focused on the administrative fiasco of Michael Gove’s cuts in the English school building programme, yet another NHS reorganisation based on GPs this time, and the wobbles in the intellectual rationale for the cuts, as explained by the supposedly independent new Office of Budgetary Responsibility. But this is only the tip of huge iceberg.
The presence of the prime minister was intended as a morale boost. His words were warm, but lacked substance. One colleague said he was just like Tony Blair, but with shinier skin and better teeth. Cameron meant well, but it was clear that he hadn’t the faintest idea what a civil servant does, or the daily dilemmas we face
I can’t escape the feeling that all our dynamism and creativity – so long targeted at the problems in our society – has been turned inward. Vast systems have been built to freeze spending and implement cuts. They are sucking everyone in. This is a turning point in our island history.
I have noted since the election that Conservative ministers seem very relaxed. I, like many others, interpreted this as confidence and competence. After last week, it started to look like naivety and arrogance. The gaffes were piling up and forming an edifice of stupidity. Ministers called to the Commons to apologise; Hillsborough survivors insulted; Jamie Oliver criticised; the Speaker called a stupid sanctimonious dwarf; school building programmes announced and then scrapped. It was a litany of carelessness and sloppiness, a series of avoidable own goals that illustrated a lack of preparation, a lack of seriousness and the failure to appreciate what it is to govern a country.
This comes at perhaps the most dangerous three weeks for many years. At the end of July, parliament will break for the summer, not to return until September. In the next three weeks, a series of monumental decisions will be taken that will dictate the course of our politics for years to come.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London