The departure of Steve Hilton as the PM’s Blue skies adviser will co-incide with the end of the first two years of the Coaltion government. The Sunday newspapers were speculating on whether this marks the end of the radical reform phase of the administration.
The government always designed its period in office in two stages. In the first stage, they planned to put through substantial legislation to reform education, health and welfare. They conducted a wide ranging Strategic defence review. They set out a five year trajectory for public spending and taxes. They put their main tax increases into the first period, increasing VAT, living with most of the Labour increases in fuel duty, NI and Income Tax, and imposing higher CGT. They enacted their localism measures, changed planning offering more elected Mayors and police commissioners. They put in place the Green Deal, and started to rebuild the UK’s diplomatic links with the emerging world.
In the second stage they planned to manage the results of all these changes, tweaking the main welfare, local government, health and educational reforms, and adjusting the economic strategy at the margins. They probably hoped that one of the windfalls like the sale of RBS might come in and permit some modest tax cuts later.
It was never going to work out quite like that. The spending squeeze was always scheduled to get tougher in the second half. The first two years see £55.8 billion a year of increases. The last three years see just £37.9 billion a year of further cash increases by 2015 compared to 2012. That was always going to make the politics of the second half more difficult. The welfare reforms will come to a crescendo near the next election, as it takes most of the current Parliament to prepare the computer prgrammes and proceed with a working new system for benefit delivery. They will need to be well tested and well based for them to be well received in a more febrile pre election atmosphere. The Health reforms will take some time to bed down. The deficit reduction programme has so far fallen prey to slower growth leading to higher borrowing. This in turn leads people to demand a better series of measures to promote economic growth.
More importantly, a government has to manage what comes along. It cannot always set out a strategy and stick to it. The Coalition hoped that it could place Europe on the back burner. The two main parties have very different viewpoints on the topic. The Conservatives at the very least want powers back and do not wish to travel with the other EU members in the direction of EU integration and political union, whilst the Lib dems have always been a federalist party. Throughout the last two years the EU issues have kept bouncing onto TV and onto the political agenda, thanks to the Euro crisis and the continental EU wish to integrate more. Many Ministers are discovering that they cannot do what they wish to do in the UK, owing to the stranglehold EU law, the ECJ and the ECHR now has in so many areas. The frustrations the EU are causing are tipping more Conservatives into considering pulling out altogether.
The departure of Steve Hilton should not be taken by the government as a watershed, allowing them the luxury of no more serious reform. The economy is crying out for less regulation, for lower taxes on enterprise, for more working banks, for more realistic energy bills, for more competition in several areas. Ultimately the government will be judged by whether it has turned the economy round or not. It is requires more reform to bring about that task.