WestminsterWatch - February 2013

When the facts change. Toby Craig examines Coalition mid-term policies and progress

Politicians are often accused of not keeping their promises. There’s a good reason for that; they often don’t. And there’s usually something to hide behind.

It has, however, become unusual for governments to provide full assessments of the promises they made and whether or not they have kept to them. Labour had its annual reports under Tony Blair, but these were quickly slipped back into the cupboard as their political inconvenience became clear. Whether it was by accident or design, that is exactly what the Coalition Government has produced in its mid-term review. Given the memo which Number 10 adviser, Patrick Rock, inadvertently revealed to Downing Street photographers, which warned of ‘problematic areas’ which might produce ‘unfavourable copy’, there were certainly questions raised at the heart of Government as to how extensive the published material would be.

However, whether or not that forced the Coalition’s hand, the warts and all review was released and was ultimately a fairly dry and technical progress report, detailing the 70 or so unfulfilled promises, including in criminal justice. There weren’t all that many headlines; the interest, as ever, was more with the perceived potential cover-up than the act itself.
Well, perhaps breaking pledges is not always a bad thing. As Keynes was reported to have asked, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”, and the economic situation (or at least our understanding of it) has steadily worsened throughout this Parliament. It is of greater concern when politicians rigidly stick to their guns in the face of all evidence to the contrary. (LASPO anyone..?)

One for all and all for Onesie
All this seemed like a good time for Nick Clegg to hit the airwaves and take his case to the voters directly. Perhaps remembering his success at answering unseen questions during the election campaign (rather than looking fairly glum on the Government benches), he engineered a regular radio slot on LBC and largely came across quite well, reiterating the Lib Dems’ commitment to the Coalition and, somewhat bizarrely, his ownership of the latest fashion must-have, the Onesie (soon to be seen in robing rooms across England and Wales, no doubt).

It is no bad time to be challenging the public’s perception of Parliamentarians. With the expenses scandal still fresh in all of our minds, and with many previous ‘entitlements’ now unavailable, a YouGov poll, commissioned by IPSA, found that 69% of MPs felt they were underpaid, with the average suggested uplift being from £65,738 to £86,250. There’s probably a strong case to be made in favour of that view (particularly if we want to attract the best possible candidates away from the private sector). Although MPs are now unable to award themselves pay rises, when there are not insignificant numbers of people choosing between food and fuel, it seemed an unfortunate time to hold that view. Instead, they will have to settle for a 1% rise. What’s more, there is unlikely to be much sympathy in large swathes of the public sector (not least the legal aid Bar) where cuts remain the order of the day.

Picking at an old wound
But whilst fixating on their pay, that other old obsession, at least of Conservative MPs, is never too far from the surface; the perennial problem of Europe. As WW went to press, the Prime Minister was preparing to deliver a long-awaited speech on the relationship between the UK and the EU, with many expecting some form of referendum to be promised for the next Parliament, should the Conservatives win a majority. This could fairly be described as Cameron’s best attempt to kick the issue into the relatively long grass, whilst seeking to head-off UKIP’s attraction to the Tory Euro-sceptics looking for a suitable home for a protest vote. It is unlikely that either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor seriously wish to contemplate a European exit, but there is a growing and vocal move to force their hand into action, not least from the Party’s 2010 intake. Whether Cameron will be able to placate everyone with one rhetorical flourish seems unlikely. President Obama’s second inaugural address seems a more straightforward task in comparison.

Still on probation
Meanwhile, as Chris Grayling still settles in to his new role in the MoJ, prisons and rehabilitation continue to dominate his in-tray. The potential undoing of many Home Secretaries until responsibility for prisons was shuffled over to the Ministry of Justice, dealing with offenders appears to be dominating the new Justice Secretary’s time. Indeed, other than a few mutterings about a legal aid review, there has not been much time for the huge issues of LASPO, criminal contracts, regulation, the international growth of the legal services sector or a number of other issues uppermost in the legal profession’s mind. The latest issue is over who should take responsibility for the probation service, as Grayling announced that the public probation service would focus only on the most dangerous or high-risk offenders.

A wholly outsourced system, the Lord Chancellor admitted, will not produce instant results (after so many false starts, it doesn’t seem like anyone could reasonably expect such a thing; but since when was the criminal justice system judged against reasonable expectations?). The new system will rely upon a hybrid of public, private and voluntary services. It is a major and ambitious proposal, which met with aggressive opposition from many working in the sector, who branded the move as purely ideological and lacking an evidence base.

Whichever side of the argument one assumes, it is clearly a political minefield. With recidivism still an enormous problem, however much expectations are managed, a few high profile incidences of re-offending by those under new arrangements are bound to grab headlines and cause difficulty. All this reiterates the inherent barriers in having to tackle such a breadth of policy areas within one Government Department and whether each is able to demand the attention they deserve.

A busy and acrimonious start to the year in Westminster then, with more focus on the success or failure of Government initiatives and pledges than on the light legislative agenda. Whatever is produced by the spin machines on either side, almost every policy will eventually return to affordability, and in turn to the size of the deficit. In that respect, there’s nowhere to hide...

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.