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.