Is the government taking on too many battles?
The impending public-sector strikes announced this week add just another front to the many battles the governmentâ€™s facing. Ed Miliband raised an aspect of the welfare reforms at the last PMQâ€™s, the proposed changes to the NHS have been mired in difficulty for months, thereâ€™ve been the academies programme and tuition fees in education, and eliminating the deficit will have implications across virtually every aspect of government activity. On top of which, itâ€™s got involved in a real battle over Libya and is still engaged in Afghanistan.
On a purely political front, the governmentâ€™s given nearly every MP cause for concern with the boundary review, told the lords that their days as legislators are numbered, and even managed to find time to engage in a civil war over AV. Thatâ€™s an awful lot of people who may have cause to oppose it on one ground or another.
Put another way,Â those simultaneous battles very much limit the electorate who feel the governmentâ€™s unambiguously on its side, fighting for and delivering what they believe in. This is a problem as all successful governments need their political praetorian guard – activists, journalists and MPs absolutely loyal to it because they believe itâ€™s loyal to their vision of the country. That was never going to be easy in a coalition to start with, when much is already a compromise. The succession of U-turns makes it even harder as those strongly supportive of a policy become wary of being left high and dry in the event of a retreat.
It may well be that David Cameronâ€™s government is keen to learn the lesson that Tony Blair drew from his own first term, where he subsequently believed he didnâ€™t push hard enough. Blair, however, had a massive majority and a benign economic picture and so could largely afford to pick and choose where to push hard and where to delay.
A better contrast might be the first Thatcher government. This is often seen as a radical and reforming government and in some ways it was. However, the big battles it chose in that first term were quite limited – reforming industrial relations and tackling inflation and the budget deficit; the other keynote policy being council house sales. What should be just as apparent is what wasnâ€™t done. At the 1983 election the top rate of tax was 60%; still in public ownership were the utilities, rail, BA, BL, BP, BT, coal and various lesser activities; the education system was largely left as found, as was the NHS. Most of the policies that defined the 1980s (rather than tidied up the 1970s) were second- and third-term.
Of course, to introduce them, first you have to win a second and third term but thatâ€™s more likely if you win your big battles in the first, although again, it being a coalition causes a problem with that sort of planning. Even so, the danger of trying to advance on all fronts at the same time is that far too many may fail to reach their objectives, emboldening the opposition where that happens, and overstretching and distracting Number Ten from the prime focus. After all, the opposition can also pick where to attack and small but regular successes can build into a narrative – and returning to the first point, this is a government whose defences are weaker than many.
At the next election, the Conservatives and Lib Dems will want to claim credit for fixing the economy. If they can point to other improvements, from their point of view, fine, but thatâ€™s a bonus. All first terms are about establishing trust and fitness to govern and this time, thatâ€™s about getting the deficit down while preserving growth and employment, subject to other things not going badly wrong – which is why taking on unnecessary battles is extremely dangerous. With the Summer recess approaching, it might be time to take another look the big strategy.