Strategy and tactics


                  A government needs both strategy and tactics. A sensible government, if it makes a tactical error, will quickly apologise, adjust and move on. If a government makes a serious strategic error – like John Major’s ERM decision or Gordon Brown’s boom and bust policy-  it is likely to be terminal for that government.

                 Recently there have been criticisms of the Coalition government’s approach to school sports, to selling woods, to funding charities and to supporting debt counselling, among other issues. Most of these are tactical issues arising from the strategic decision to cut the deficit. The government has changed in response to criticism in each case.

                  The underlying strategic judgement that public spending needs to be brought under some control is correct. The spin that the cuts are going to far larger than the overall figures imply may reflect the public view of some individual cuts which will be unpopular. What matters is that the government develops a flair for controlling public spending better without doing damage to cherished front line services. Given the numbers this should be easy. Given the politics of dealing with so many quangos and Councils, it will be difficult. Setting out the true cash spending  figures in each case might help explain it to the undecided or neutral.

                      The government has three main strategic aims. The first is to bring the deficit down by a large increase in tax revenues and better control over spending increases.The second is to reform public services. The third is to implement its Big Society vision.

                       These three strategic aims have the advantage that they do all largely  pull in the same direction. Welfare reform could result in much lower bills if many more people get jobs. Getting people back to work rests on the very same economic recovery that higher tax revenues rest on. If the Big Society arrives to delegate power to local groups and to front line public service employees, it could help deliver better value public service and be part of public service reform.

                      The latest challenge to the approach is  for opponents to claim that public service reform and the development of localism and the Big Society all require substantial injections of Whitehall cash. The government  has to reject this convincingly and show it is not true. Otherwise public service reform and Big Society growth get in the way of deficit reduction.

                          A few tactical retreats or changes shows flexibility. Too many will create a sense of weakness. If you lose too many tactical battles you end up losing the strategy that led to them.To see through spending control and service reform, the government has to judge its battles well and win them.


  1. lifelogic
    February 14, 2011

    “John Major’s ERM decision or Gordon Brown’s boom and bust policy- it is likely to be terminal for that government.” Yes and still no sensible small government Tories in power even now. It looks as though Brown’s error will be less terminal than Major’s incompetence.

    Typical BBC news this morning something like – lots of redundancies expected in the private sector as the public sector cuts start to bite. Not the more honest – The failure of the government to cut public spending and taxation is likely to cause very substantial redundancies in the private sector as it looses confidence in the government’s direction and are rendered uncompetitive by the dead weight of the state sector on their backs.

    1. foundavoice
      February 15, 2011

      “It looks as though Brown’s error will be less terminal than Major’s incompetence.”

      Are you sure? White Wednesday saved us from the Euro with some short term pain that we’ve since moved on from. Brown has committed this and the next generation to paying off his spending and has culturally wrecked all areas of state control, which again will take years to undo.

      1. lifelogic
        February 15, 2011

        I meant for terminal for a proper Tory party for Major and labour for Brown.
        At this rate Labour will soon be back.

  2. Mike Stallard
    February 14, 2011

    You are so right!
    But what a temptation for politicians to blame the government for “cut backs” when it is all “the bankers’ fault” not theirs! Did you hear Polly Toynbee on Question Time? When someone asked her who had got the country into such debt, she shouted, “the bankers!”
    And what a temptation for all the fat cats (see this week’s Spectator) to cut back on Police and Schools while upping their own salaries and allowances!

    1. norman
      February 14, 2011

      I also read that article (and if the Tories had any sense they’d try and get the message out to everyone) and what’s also annoying is that the reason in the first place for these over inflated salaries (+ benefits) was so that the public sector could attract and compete with the private for the top talent.

      Now look at the decisions these so-called top talent managers (who only ever seem to float from one public body to another if Private Eye’s never ending string of exposes is anything to go by) are making.

      Can anyone imagine Tesco having to make 1% cuts 0ver 4 years and area managers deciding that the best way to do this would be to reduce the number of checkout lines by a third? They’d be out on their ear by lunchtime and they know it, that’s why it would never even be considered.

      Public sector managers, on the other hand, know they are protected and can do whatever they want.

      I’m not in favour of central government intervention but in this case I think it’s worth Eric Pickles getting up a task force to help coordinate cuts.

  3. Stewart Knight
    February 14, 2011

    controlling public spending better without doing damage to cherished front line services….

    Cherishing many front line services is what has seen us in this mess in the first place.

  4. APL
    February 14, 2011

    JR: “Given the numbers this should be easy. ”

    Yea, we could start with the £12 billion per annum that we pay to the European Union.

    Then going on, roll back the EU regulation that hamstrings British industry.

    Finally, get rid of the has-been deadwood of the political establishment. The likes of ‘Lord’ Kinnock, ‘Lord’ Martin, ‘Lord’ Mandleson to name but three, there are numerous others on superannuated pensions doing (little but being friendly to the EU -ed)

  5. Johnny Norfolk
    February 14, 2011

    The coalition should have given a list to all local authorities on the services they MUST provide. In this way they could have forced them into cutting the back offices and dropping their non essential pet projects. If anything was missed it couls be added to the list. A government should set out the things a local authority must do. How they do it and any other things they can afford to do is up to them.
    That is what any business would do.

    1. JimF
      February 14, 2011

      That would have been a wise move, but would also be going against the localism agenda.
      The real answer is to create a transparent situation so that when councils try to persuade us that services for the disabled are being cut whilst their pet lesbian/gay rights etc. agendae are continuing, they can be voted quickly out of office.

    2. Richard
      February 14, 2011

      I totally agree with every word you say.
      There has been a compete failure by central Govt to define the minimum basic services that have to be provided to by local Councils
      To close libraries, public toilet facilities, disabled care provision and remove school crossing patrols whilst failing to cut anything at the top is an obscenity.

  6. alan jutson
    February 14, 2011

    The simple fact is John.

    The Government have not explained any policy properly, clearly, or in a manner in which the general public readily understand.

    Until the Government learns to present its polices in a clear and concise manner, much as you do on this site, it will be doomed.

    1. Mike Stallard
      February 14, 2011

      A series of adverts and cartoons would be the best way to do this – pictures tell a huge story.

      1. alan jutson
        February 15, 2011


        Absolutely agree, suggested this way before the general election.

        Simple diagrams, simple charts, and a digital display showing numbers rising on our ever increasing debt as a backdrop to any ministerial statement.

    2. foundavoice
      February 15, 2011

      Bang on.

  7. David Price
    February 14, 2011

    “The first is to bring the deficit down by a large increase in tax revenues and better control over spending increases.”

    Is this really a Conservative strategy? Why isn’t the emphasis on cutting costs before raising taxes?

    Or is the strategy to somehow convince people in some strange, unfathomable way that they should vote Conservative rather than Lib Dem or UKIP in 2015 and then the real Conservative policies, rather than Lib Dem ones, can be implemented?

    Unfortunately with the present strategy I’m not sure what exactly will be left of the UK economy or the patience and motivation of private sector productives in 4 years.

    1. APL
      February 15, 2011

      David Price: “and then the real Conservative policies, [snip] can be implemented”

      Problem is, on this site we have been promised reasonably Conservative policies for ages, it’s just that CCO pays no attention to actual Conservatives.

  8. Iain Gill
    February 14, 2011

    The people have told the politicians repeatedly that their two biggest “strategic aims” are

    1 – sort out the financial situation
    2 – sort out immigration

    John, you are one of the best but dont get swamped by all the noise in the political and media circles, the public are going to get ever more cheesed off if their number 2 strategic issue continues to be ignored

    1. Mike Stallard
      February 14, 2011

      I work a lot with immigrants and I know that most of them are lovely people whom I both respect and like. Having said this, i have to admit that you are right – very right indeed.

  9. English Pensioner
    February 14, 2011

    To me, the Tories seem to be constantly on the defensive although in general terms they are correct in what they are doing. Has Cameron and the Tories never heard the phrase “Attack is the best means of Defence”?
    Every time some person or organisation moans that their funding is being cut, the minister concerned should ask them, very publicly, what they would prefer to cut instead, or whether they would prefer £xxx to be added to the debt of each individual in this country. Stop talking about National Debt, the figures are above most people’s heads, start talking about the effective individual debt, or the debt that we will be leaving to our children.
    The old idea of sitting back and saying something like the figures speak for themselves is useless because the opposition shouts louder; its time the Tories got off their backsides and started to react. Cameron’s fancy speeches are OK, but who listens to the detail, we just get a few sound bites on TV.
    If the Tories loose the next election, it won’t be because of what they have done policywise, but what they haven’t done in explaining the policy.

  10. Brian Tomkinson
    February 14, 2011

    I should say that, rather than reform of public services and the Big Society being strategies, they are tactics for delivering the strategy of creating a smaller and more efficient public sector (not small enough for many of us). With Labour placemen and women rife throughout the public sector these tactics will be put under more and more strain. It may be too early to be sure but I fear this government lacks the competence to achieve its strategic aims. There has been too much poorly thought out policy, appalling communication and too much capitulation in the face of opposition already, even though public spending has been increased. Leaving local councils free rein on how to reduce their expenditure was another tactical mistake – politics will be put before the national and local interest. A government without the competence and determination to achieve its strategic aims can’t be relied on either to tackle the loss of democratic control to the EU and the ECHR whilst it is busy with church services for homosexuals and meddling with the entry requirements for our universities.

  11. Stuart Fairney
    February 14, 2011

    The government should not be in the business of proscribing what sports individual schools decide to pursue (some may like a heavy focus on cricket, others Rugby, others PE etc and they could very easily make use of a myriad of external facilities if none are available on-site), woods existed before government, they will exist after government as we now know it has gone, charities are (or were) by definition outside the state sector and should be returned as such and debt counselling can very easily be transferred to the private sector by insisting all banks and lending companies have a website page and a phone helpline.

    This is surely easy. If the government folds at the first whiff of a press release from the CAB and a vox pop on Radio 4, then there can be little hope for it. Now if it actually had principles of some kind…

  12. Martin
    February 14, 2011

    What has happened is that control of the tactics of implementation has been given to the enemies of the strategy.

    Isn’t the governments problem that it has let the high spenders decide the cuts? Instead of saying a 20% cut across the board in public sector wages (with the poorest paid taking less of the hit and the highest paid most) the government has let the public sector Stalin-ists cut the libraries etc.

    1. Andrew Johnson
      February 14, 2011

      Agree completely

  13. i albion
    February 14, 2011

    Apl, second that remark and third it!

  14. Alte Fritz
    February 14, 2011

    Businesses often pay good money to have an outsider to see the governemnt as other see it. Governments appear to have a problem in seeing in this way, hence the tactical mistakes. The Forrestry Commission just did not seem worth the aggro.

    There are strategic messages on both sides, and Labour’s is, as already noted, that it was all the fault of the bankers. Few commentators seem to point to the unlovely love affair between New Labour and the City whicih fed abuse and the spending frenzy. It seems to me to be a message you cannot shout loudly enough.

    It would be a tragedy if the Coalition succeeds in its programme but then loses the next election becasue it has lost the public debate. If that happens, we shall just be in for another disaster.

  15. Javelin
    February 14, 2011

    What does the Big Society mean? For example, I view it as social care that we cannot afford. That is to say when the deficit reduces to zero and we want better services, do we cut red tape, increase borrowing or act more responsibly. For me the Big Society is not about Charities stepping in to do Government work it’s about individuals not acting irresponsibly and using Government services (for example drunks and obesity). So if that’s the strategy then the tactics mean building up individuals responsibilities and that means a change in law from Human Rights and compensation, to a law of Human Obligations and Responsibilities.

    To be honest I don’t think the EU and the Big Society are comfortable bed fellows.

    1. Javelin
      February 14, 2011

      Had a bit more of a think about this and the problem is that Cameron is letting people focus on the cuts – as part of the definition of the Big Society is where the “Big State” ends the “Big Society” ends. But the problem is that where the Big State ends is a very, very ragged boundary. So using this boundary to define the Big Society makes it feel ragged. Further more, the Big State is defined by a simple concept of The Government as a single benevolent institution providing services. So what Cameron needs is a simple concept from which all Society comes from.

      So he needs to list ideas like Jury Service, conscription, ABSOs, Duty to work, Duty to pay taxes, Duty to keep the Peace, Duty to not be a burden to the State etc, etc and come up with a Bill of Duties that enshrines Duty to others in Society in it. Im sure all these Duties are in law, but have never been pulled together. Once you do this you will start to see patterns and principles. Then this needs an opposite Bill of Rights to balance it out.

  16. BobE
    February 14, 2011

    Any public sector employee who earns more than the PM should have their pay cut to be under it. This should include the all Councils as well.
    Region 6,

  17. Acorn
    February 14, 2011

    While I think of it. Some of the economic blogs have recently discovered a BIS report from last year, concerning public debt to GDP ratios. This link is the original:- . Bit heavy but worth a read.

  18. Kenneth
    February 14, 2011

    As any accountant who practices double entry accounting will know, when money moves there is always a debit for every credit and vice versa.

    When the Labour Party was frittering our money away on excessive public spending projects the BBC and some other media were concentrating on the credit side without mentioning the debit.

    In my view this was biased reporting with no symmetry: extra spending was seen as good news. The fact that this led to increased borrowing or funding from the taxpayer was ignored as if the debit side of the equation did not matter or did not exist.

    Now they are getting it wrong again but the other way round: cuts to public spending are being reported as a debit only without the good news that this will eventually go towards paying off our debt.

    Once again bias. This is not fair on the People of this country who are being given a partial view of politics and of the economic situation.

    As the bias is never corrected it effectively becomes propaganda and indoctrination.

    Perhaps one idea is for the government to take out an ad on the front page of UK Google with a link to this web site:

  19. Alan Wheatley
    February 14, 2011

    An interesting and balanced analysis.

    Countering catchy slogans with a reasoned argument can prove a fruitless task if those listening have only time for slogans.

    I am surprised that “reckless spending cuts” has not had the response “even more reckless debt increases”. Both are meaningless spin, of course, but these days it seems to win the pot you need to see any slogan and raise a better one to win “popular acclaim” poker.

  20. REPay
    February 14, 2011

    You have to give the BBC credit…They are the public sector and the Guardian off the airwaves and accept the line that these are swingeing cuts (though they aren’t) and it was bankers to blame for the recession (though they were only the trigger for the bust) and that all expenditure by the state is good. (Over my lifetime a minister has only ever extremely rarely been cross-examined by the BBV for spending money.) They have been very effective in creating a platform for any cuts opposition whether or not the cuts or closures are an established trend such as librarires. It must be said the coalition makes these kind of noises. They never try to explain how much we are in debt per capita!

  21. Derek Buxton
    February 14, 2011

    First, Cameron must make up his mind whether he support this our Nation State or whether he destroys it, because the way he is going it will be the latter. Their are plenty of savings he could make that would not affect the major front line services. Wind farms, the FIT, and the EU subscription. There are a few billions in that for starters.

  22. BigJohn
    February 14, 2011

    “A sensible government, if it makes a tactical error, will quickly apologise, adjust and move on.”

    A good start would be the government apologising, and stopping the wasting of our money on this global warming hoax.

  23. BobE
    February 14, 2011

    And now its a One Billion bung to India!!

  24. Andrew Johnson
    February 14, 2011

    John, can you tell us if it is true that young RAF pilots about to qualify are going to be made redundant before they gain their wings?

    Reply: Apparently so – they are cancelling a lot of planes so they need fewer pilots.

  25. JimF
    February 14, 2011

    Sorry but I can’t see how large tax rises and growing the economy go hand-in-hand. Quite the reverse infact.

  26. ian wragg
    February 14, 2011

    You say that the welfare budget could be reduced as more people find work.
    For there to be jobs there needs to be an incentive for people to create them.
    My opinion of this government (and the last) is it’s obsession with the green agenda which is going to strangle Britain.
    All manufacturing will locate overseas as the price of energy become exorbitant and unreliable.
    Are you aware whilst we fill the country with solar panel and windmills Germany in 2011 is commissioning 11,000 megawatts of coal fired power station.
    None of these has carbon capture which is in itself a pipedream. Just plain old coal and lignite fired boilers.
    The Germans understand that to maintain their manufacturing infrastructure you must have cheap and reliable power. Hence coal and not gas and certainly not renewable.
    Only recently the German energy minister stated that the windfarms had saved not one ounce of carbon as conventional stations had to run on reduced load ready to take over when the wind drops.
    When are the true Conservatives going to oust these imposters and let the country breath?

  27. Mr J Leslie Smith
    February 14, 2011

    Without a doubt these Fat Cats running our Councils are very afraid of Eric Pickles as he cuts at the same time as callin g a Prerss Conference and informing the Public via the Media. Labour and its Council (cheerleaders? ed) are so afraid of Pickles that a Task Force headed by him, to ensure front line services are held up whilst Bosses lose out at these Councils would have the support of the Country at large. He is one Tory that everyone who pays council taxes seems to like and respect – I do.

  28. Brian Tomkinson
    February 15, 2011

    I wonder why you chose not to post my comments sent yesterday?

  29. Electro-Kevin
    February 15, 2011

    The Big Society cannot first come about without the dismantling of the welfare state.

    We once had the biggest of Big Societies which was largely founded on Christian organisations. The Tories no longer seem to be Big on Christianity – in fact they seem rather embarassed by it.

    Once again I say David Cameron appears to be shy about dealing with the hard issues he was elected to deal with. If he doesn’t do so then the productive classes face lots of pain with no gain.

  30. sjb
    February 15, 2011

    JR writes: “If a government makes a serious strategic error – like John Major’s ERM decision […]”

    I thought the main reason the Prime Minister (Mrs Thatcher) agreed to join the ERM in October 1990 was to remove inflation from the UK economy. Another reason was that joining enabled interest rates to be cut by 1% to 14%, because I think the market considered membership would preclude our usual tendency of devaluing the pound.

    Twenty years on, the pound has gone through another period of devaluation and inflation is back.

  31. John
    February 18, 2011

    Before we hear more about nasty Labour councils cutting frontline services to score points off the government (which seems to be David Cameron’s accusation), perhaps it’s worth remembering that Oxfordshire (in Mr Cameron’s own patch) is planning to close large numbers of its libraries, ditto North Yorkshire and Somerset.

    Northamptonshire is scrapping most of its rural bus services and North Yorkshire is cutting evening and Sunday bus services. Norfolk is getting rid of its lollipop men/women.

    These are all Tory-run councils. If it is so easy to make savings without affecting key services (as John claims), why are so many of his Tory colleagues cutting services that the public use and value?

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