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Coalition relaunches are becoming a regular event for Britain’s two governing parties. The latest reconciliation between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – following last week’s bruising bust-up over House of Lords reform – is the second in a little more than two months.
Most governments hit a rough patch in midterm, and David Cameron’s poll ratings are in fact not that bad compared with those experienced by past prime ministers at comparable moments in their premiership. Given the weakness of the economy, it is surprising that the coalition’s popularity has not dipped further.
But the sharp loss of public goodwill over the past year has dented the government’s confidence, turning the two parties in on themselves. Increasingly, they behave as if they were already campaigning for the next election rather than running the country.
The prime minister talks about what he might do in office were he to have an absolute majority, in the apparent hope that dog-whistles on Europe and immigration might lure back wavering Tory voters. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems pose as some sort of leash around the neck of the Tory Rottweiler.
Coming so far ahead of the next election, this does not come across as sensible party positioning, but as evidence of fundamental disunity. The parties must stop talking about what they might do had they their ideal situation and concentrate on the here and now.
There needs, as this newspaper has said before, to be a renewed focus on growth. The £9bn of rail investments just announced represents a start. But more can be done while still living within the deficit reduction envelope. The test of all new legislative proposals must be whether they encourage investment and job creation.
The constitutional reform agenda has in this context become a millstone. The coalition may have pulled back from the disputed Lords bill, but there is still talk of hammering out a compromise over the summer that would allow a measure to go forward. This should be quietly dropped.
The Lords bill is a mess and not worth reviving. But Mr Cameron should also let go of the other side of the quid pro quo – the reduction of MPs’ numbers and consequent boundary redrawing exercise. There may be a case for such a change, but constitutional reform should not be a process of backstairs wrangling. In any case, the potential cost to the coalition in terms of bad blood and internal division outweighs the gain.
The coalition’s woes are however a question of men as well as measures. And first among those who need to raise their game is Mr Cameron himself. The administration’s difficulties have exposed weaknesses in the prime minister’s approach to governing. He has exhibited a worrying lack of grip, leading him to split differences rather than set a clear direction and priorities. He needs to give up the mistaken idea of himself as the chairman of the board. Ministers should be kept on a shorter rein.
Mr Cameron needs to broaden the base of his government. While George Osborne is undeniably talented, the bungling of the last Budget shows that he does not have the time to juggle being both chancellor of the exchequer and Mr Cameron’s chief political strategist. He should focus on the economy and Mr Cameron should appoint a proper Tory chairman.
The government as a whole is suffering from a growing perception of incompetence. Too many initiatives are floated and too few delivered. There needs to be a focus on delivery. Mr Cameron requires a proper political operation in Downing Street with clear lines of command and control.
There also needs to be a thorough review of personnel. After two years, it is painfully clear that some ministers are not up to their responsibilities. Andrew Lansley’s credibility has been fatally undermined by his flawed and unnecessary NHS reform bill. The fact that the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has become known as the “minister for Murdoch” says it all. Theresa May has yet convincingly to get a grip on the Home Office. Mr Cameron’s unease about excessive reshuffles is understandable after the musical chairs of the Blair era, but the time has come when the prime minister must show a more ruthless streak.
The public mood may be less forgiving, but Mr Cameron still has a chance to turn things round. However, to do this, the prime minister must first assert his leadership.
When asked once why he wanted to lead the country, Mr Cameron reportedly answered that he thought he would be good at the job. Now he needs to prove it.