After the Governor of the Bank of England warned that the economic recovery was entering choppy waters and the last quarter's unemployment figures suggested the timid pace of job creation was slowing, I was almost relieved to receive a furious circular from the general secretary of the GMB union, that accused "the Tory/Liberal government" of taking an "almighty gamble with the economy" – a gamble, needless to say, that was bound to fail. I was relieved because until that moment I had detected precious little serious opposition activity even of the rhetorical variety. The Tory/Liberal government, as the GMB leader styled it, seemed to be having things pretty much its own way. Here was a twitch evincing something like normal life.
Even as the novelty of having a coalition government has faded, however, such twitches remain the exception rather than the rule. And while the general quiescence might be explained by the time that Labour is taking to elect its new leader or the holiday season or the mostly benign weather – all of which will come to an end – I am starting to wonder whether there will ever be a return to what is regarded as normality at all.
Shortly before the political class fled the capital for August (with the honourable exception of government ministers who are conspicuously working in shifts), I attended various gatherings representing different constituencies of the Left. Two striking realities emerged. The first was the extent to which loyally Labour-voting public servants were ready to acknowledge the scale of waste and the need for change. The second was the universal amazement at what someone described as "the calm on the doorstep".
The coalition had made no bones about the need for swingeing cuts; George Osborne had used his emergency Budget to spell out some terrifying percentages; but the public overall seemed strangely relaxed, perhaps resigned, to what might lie ahead. And while Liberal Democrat leaders had been vilified by many left-leaning supporters for facilitating David Cameron's path to Number 10, there was another response, too. A perplexed Shirley Williams related how she was getting used to being approached by complete strangers, wanting to congratulate her on the party's decision to join the coalition.
Now it is entirely possible that this summer truce is no more than an extended honeymoon, the proverbial calm before the storm; possible, too, that Labour will awaken from its hibernation, rejuvenated and hungry for the fray. Trade unions are forecasting an autumn of discontent, and there are dark rumours about mass unemployment and rioting in the streets, once the public realises the true impact of "the cuts". Remember the poll tax, you hear leftist activists say, as an example of what happens when an overconfident government stretches its mandate too far.
But the Government's frustrated opponents would be wise not to count on it. For it is also possible that the calm on the doorstep could last longer than they believe, and extend further – into the kitchens and bedrooms where the ordinary tax-payers of Britain vouchsafe what they really think. It is not as though they have any excuse for not knowing. Recent weeks have seen a blizzard of government initiatives. Recipients of incapacity benefit will have to prove they still qualify. Single mothers will be expected to work when their youngest child reaches five. Student loans could be replaced by a life-long graduate tax. Only lower-income families will qualify for tax credits. Housing benefit will be cut and capped. Council tenancies could be time-limited.
This is emotive stuff. Yet very few of these bombshells have actually exploded on hitting the public domain. The only whimpers of protest have come from lobby groups – whose job it is to respond in this way. Shelter, for instance, predicts an upsurge in homelessness. It would, wouldn't it? But Shelter does not need to square the millions waiting for safe, subsidised housing with the number of elderly people living in relatively spacious houses and flats.
It would be civilised, of course, to let them stay there; brutal – in many cases – to uproot them. But a housing officer for a deprived part of London told me that if she could transfer all those in "under-occupied" accommodation to somewhere smaller, the waiting list of families would vanish at a stroke. The problem is known, and soluble.
Then consider the muted reaction to the proposed changes in tax credits. Or the (unexpected) student support for a graduate tax. Or the non-outcry about reducing the prison population. Or imposing a cap on housing benefit. We have one of the highest rates of owner-occupation in the developed world. Those who buy their own homes do not need the populist press to tell them how much they would have to earn to enjoy the size or type of housing someone with no work and a few children receives at public expense. The public has a well-developed compass for – yes, the coalition's word – fairness, or, to put it another way, a proportionate role for the state.
Last weekend, when it emerged that a junior minister favoured abolishing free milk for nursery children, the Thatcher-era vibes led No 10 to take fright. But even as officials said it would not happen, many people were asking whether it was not the parents' responsibility to provide their children with milk and whether it might not be a better use of money (as the minister had suggested) to raise the value of milk and fruit tokens for poor families instead. Politically, Mr Cameron's instinct was probably right; but had he so desired, he just might have carried the public with him.
As the Prime Minister approaches his 100 days, a prevailing sense of equanimity speaks of a silent majority that largely shares the coalition's judgements about the state. It was a former Conservative leader who conducted his (rather nasty) campaign under the slogan: "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" As it turned out, they weren't. But perhaps now, with this government, they are. And if they are, the coalition probably has more room for manoeuvre, and more time, than its opponents think. Just as long, in fact, as the calm on the doorstep endures.Reuse content