Andrew Grice: The week that taught the Coalition the reality of being in power

Inside Politics

Share
Related Topics

Although he had a busy schedule in China and South Korea, David Cameron had to devote more time than he had bargained for to events back home.

On Wednesday, an increasingly anxious Prime Minister watched the student riots outside Conservative Party headquarters in Millbank on his hotel television in Korea. He spoke to Theresa May, the Home Secretary, by phone as the dramatic events unfolded.

The riots also posed a headache for Nick Clegg. Standing in for Mr Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions, he had just been given an uncomfortable time by Harriet Harman over his spectacular U-turn on university tuition fees. However much the public disliked the violence, Liberal Democrat MPs rolled their eyes in horror, knowing the protest would draw more attention to their lurch from pledging to abolish fees to virtually trebling them. A Tory minister smiled: "Thank goodness our policy is being fronted by Vince Cable" [the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary]. You bet.

Six months into their coalition, both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg have realised this week that power is a messy business. Welcome to government.

At the outset, they knew that Harold Macmillan's rule – "events, dear boy, events" – would conspire against them at some point. What's surprising is that the Coalition has not been blown off course more often. For the most part, it has been professional, disciplined and united, perhaps even more so than a single-party government because everyone works overtime to avoid Tory-Liberal Democrat disputes.

Inevitably, some Liberal Democrat MPs fear for their survival as the fees rise and spending cuts loom into view. The worriers are not entirely reassured by presentations by Team Clegg at their private meetings, showing different stages in the Coalition's five-year life cycle. The message is: what matters now is unity and strength. Carving out a distinctive identity for the party comes later.

Similarly, some Conservative backbenchers grumble that the Liberal Democrat tail wags the Tory dog. There's some whining about a lack of "grip" in Downing Street and (yuk) a "narrative" on what the Government is trying to achieve. Some critics are gunning for Ed Llewellyn, Mr Cameron's self-effacing chief of staff and a friend from his Eton, Oxford and Conservative Research Department days.

They want a bruiser like Leo McGarry, the White House chief of staff in TV's The West Wing, to knock heads together and ensure everyone sticks to the same script. They complain that George Osborne gets sucked into fire-fighting duties too often. The Chancellor has a day job, after all.

Mr Cameron is having none of it. He is loyal to his friends and believes Mr Llewellyn is an unsung hero. His diplomatic skills were honed while working for Chris Patten in Hong Kong and Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia (which may have something to do with the sniping). The PM believes Mr Llewellyn has proved himself uniquely qualified for his post – for example, by defusing Tory rows over Europe and navigating the minefield of this week's visit to China. He is also a pivotal link man with the Liberal Democrats and a general troubleshooter. "People see the balls you drop in government; they don't see the ones you catch. Ed Llewellyn catches a lot of them," said one No 10 insider.

One ball that was dropped was the appointment of Andrew Parsons as the PM's official photographer on the civil service payroll. He was previously employed by the Tory party. As it happens, he will work across government, but the label of "vanity photographer" will stick, just like the allegedly airbrushed NHS poster of Mr Cameron and the image of his chauffeur-driven car following behind as he cycled to Westminster.

If Mr Parsons and other former Tory staffers had been recruited soon after the May election, there wouldn't have been much fuss. Downing Street is convinced that Whitehall departments waste money by duplicating tasks such as photography, films and using the internet – either by employing staff directly or hiring outsiders for specific jobs. They predict that taking on a small number of people at the centre will save a lot of money. I predict that when that is proven, it will be virtually ignored by the media. Welcome to government again.

Another image that may stick is the massed ranks of Tory MPs cheering Mr Osborne to the rafters when he announced his spending review last month. They were admiring a skilful political performance but it looked as if they were salivating about the cuts. If Labour has any sense, it will include this footage in its election broadcasts next time. The picture suggests the Conservatives have an ideological purpose, which could be their Achilles heel, if voters think they are still the "same old Tories". Nor will it help the Liberal Democrats convince people that the Coalition has a core purpose beyond the cuts.

This week Mr Clegg insisted the mission statement is political, social and economic reform. "If you thought this Government was all about cuts, think again," he said.

The problem for him and Mr Cameron is that the Government's reforms on welfare, health and education are doomed to be seen through the prism of the cuts. The students' protest only heightens the impression and it will not be the last.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Would you fork out to spend time on Sting's Tuscan estate?  

Happy to pay for the privilege of picking olives? Then Sting might have a job for you...

John Walsh
Clockwise from top: Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq (main picture), Adil Hussain, Umar Razaq and Mohsin Khan were sentenced for grooming teenage girls for sex in 2010.  

Nothing can make up for the trauma of Rotherham's abused young girls, but many more heads must roll

Jane Merrick
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?