Hyperactive Tories are punching above their weight

While New Labour shied away from its contentious past, current ministers happily pay homage to Thatcherite policies

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The Independent Online

Already the last election seems like distant history. The Government moves with such speed on all fronts that it is easy to forget its tiny majority was secured less than two months ago. Trade unions totter, the BBC trembles, doctors seethe uneasily, Network Rail is overhauled and the Chancellor bypasses the Low Pay Unit to set a minimum wage as he dismantles Labour’s welfare reforms in a single budget.

George Osborne might play the political games that New Labour used to play by writing in The Guardian yesterday that his party represented the progressive centre. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown used to pen equivalents for The Daily Telegraph and The Times about how they spoke for middle England. During the Government’s honeymoon, Osborne’s positioning generates much doting comment and freaks out a Labour party conditioned to be freakishly fearful at all times. But what is far more significant is the huge difference between the approach of the Government and that of the last majority government.

The characteristics of New Labour, despite landslide victories, were caution and timidity while proclaiming boldness and sweeping radicalism. The overwhelming characteristic of the current Government, with a majority of 12, is boldness and radicalism while projecting its case with an emollient tone.

I had assumed that the “pause” to the modernisation of various railway lines – including those in the so-called Northern Powerhouse – was a euphemism for a permanent halt. But I am told by those close to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin that he is in despair about the competence of Network Rail. He has assured anxious Conservative MPs who had been hoping for improvements for their constituents that all the various plans will go ahead once he has sorted out Network Rail. Impressively, he appears to be running the show as much as Network Rail – a novelty for an elected Transport Secretary.

Meanwhile, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, takes on the GPs and surgeons who operate on the assumption patients only fall ill during the week, demanding seven-day cover. In theory, NHS England runs the NHS, but now the Health Secretary seeks to run it too – sometimes in harmony with the mighty quango, but not always.

Elsewhere, the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, under Treasury instructions, changes the basis on which the BBC functions, making it an agent of welfare payments while also contemplating radical changes to its editorial remit. I could go on.

New Labour hit the ground reviewing; this government has hit the ground running. On the basis of what happened after 1997, Gordon Brown would probably have announced a review of the Low Pay Commission’s role, no doubt under the charge of a senior banker, rather than immediately impose a higher minimum wage as Osborne did. At one point, with a landslide majority in his second term, Blair contemplated taking on the BBC. He was advised against doing so on the grounds that the BBC might turn against him when he was still planning to hold an EU referendum. Instead, he introduced a reform of the BBC that was almost the same structure as the one it replaced, emblematic of a wider caution that led to the abolition of most hereditary peers, but not all of them, and the abolition of fox hunting that allowed fox hunting to continue in some forms.

Those Labour governments had huge amounts of political space and could have done more. In particular they were especially scared of intervening in any way that might have had echoes of 1970s old Labour. In their insecurity they were content to hide behind anonymous quangos rather than appear to be pulling levers. In contrast, some current ministers happily pay homage to their last period in power during the 1980s. They revive the Right to Buy and find new ways to clash with the unions. New Labour would not have dared go near a policy with echoes of its own contentious past.

Some of the current ministerial hyper-activity is remarkable. For ideological reasons they had planned to be even less active in power than their nervy Labour counterparts.

When they were in opposition, I, along with a few other columnists, were invited to seminars in which senior Shadow Cabinet members, now in the Cabinet, said they hoped to go on the Today programme and argue that policy delivery was no longer their responsibility. They planned to transfer responsibility to the users, smaller local groups, the private sector and some quangos while incoherently promising a bonfire of quangos. Now they are pulling levers all over the place from the centre. They have no choice but to do so if they want to achieve change. I might disagree with some of their policies, but they are the ones who are ultimately accountable to voters.

Of course, the current hyperactivity might peter out. The respected NHS England leadership will probably still be there when ministers move on. Under new leadership, perhaps Network Rail will get its act together. I suspect that the popularity of the BBC will tame the ideological instincts that shape some ministerial attitudes. Above all, energetic ministers are ambitious for delivery in an economic framework more Thatcherite than Margaret Thatcher’s. Already the NHS struggles to meet demand and ageing rail lines creak under the strain, while even if the BBC reforms its management structure, decent output still costs money.

Still, ministers move confidently and with purpose. At the moment it is impossible to imagine a future Labour government, but those who might want to serve in one should take note of the relentless ministerial focus on radical change with a majority more than 10 times less than those of the New Labour era.

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