Open government took on a new meaning as David Willetts, the Universities minister, was caught on the hop during a TV interview on Sunday. With the Cameroon political antennae sharper than ever, Downing Street moved quickly to quash suggestions that the new Prime Minister's "cuts" would stand any comparison with the perceived nastiness of the Thatcher era. Mr Willetts had begun a brave defence of a junior health minister, Anne Milton, over her proposal to lop £50m off the health budget, before word was sent by No 10 to inform him – live on air – that the idea had been abandoned.
So middle-class parents and millionaires, Mr Cameron and his wife included, will continue to benefit from the universal "free" milk available to all children under the age of five. Cue sighs of relief across the nurseries and nannies of Notting Hill, Primrose Hill and Winchmore Hill as the caring, liberal, credentials of the Cameroons remain intact for at least another few weeks. An embarrassing headline or two, with accusations of a government U-turn during a quiet silly season weekend, was preferable to months of "milk snatcher" press stories inviting comparisons with the evils of Thatcherism.
But the Prime Minister's deft, but brutal, defusing of Ms Milton's apparent faux pas may yet come back to haunt him. He now signals to all lobbyists, politicians and media hacks that raw politics, as well as economics, will drive the direction of government cuts. Of course, on one level this is entirely as it should be. The personality of the Prime Minister of the day, his sensitivity to public opinion and his personal judgement calls, as the final arbiter of government decision-making, matter to voters. By comparison, Gordon Brown's tin ear over the 10p tax rate in 2008 was the beginning of the end of the Labour government's relationship with the electorate. Mr Cameron, however, has already displayed an instinctive understanding of what he thinks the British public will tolerate when it comes to the balance between sacrifice and fairness.
But Ms Milton was only doing what Mr Cameron, in opposition, urged upon his shadow ministers when in government. Twice, at Tory conferences in Cheltenham and Manchester in 2009, I heard him – flanked by the then shadow Cabinet – indicate that they would be judged, in government, on their ability to save, rather than spend, taxpayers' money. I hope that Ms Milton will not suffer for thinking the unthinkable. It should be the lot of junior ministers to do the dirty work of their Cabinet bosses and it will be a travesty if ministers of similar rank, in other departments, discover that a newly implied timidity from Downing Street inhibits their willingness to challenge departmental orthodoxies.
Across Whitehall, this week, under-secretaries and ministers of state may now be less brave as they try to second-guess Downing Street's likely reaction to any bold proposal they might instruct officials to prepare. "Minister, I'm not sure this will go down too well if No 10 gets to hear about this" will be the menacing default position of civil servants – still busy house-training over-enthusiastic, but still inexperienced, junior ministers into the settled ways of defending departmental projects.
But once the full details of the comprehensive spending review are announced on 20 October it is surely reasonable for the Chancellor to expect Parliament to accept the cuts in their entirety. With so many departments preparing draconian proposals, however, Mr Cameron has opened the floodgates to backbench MPs on his own side (as well as within the Liberal Democrats) to unpick government cuts and create a storm in defence of their own local "fairness" agenda.
Already Theresa Villiers, a transport minister probably preparing to cancel transport improvement schemes in dozens of her parliamentary colleagues' constituencies, has successfully led her own charge, on behalf of her Barnet constituency, against Education Secretary, Michael Gove, after he rejected an application for academy status for one of her local schools. If Mr Gove is unable to rely on his ministerial colleagues to abide by collective government responsibility, then why should he not lobby against the transport department if Ms Villiers decides to chop a road scheme in his Surrey Heath constituency?
With Liberal Democrats, both inside and outside the coalition, steeped in the business of shouting loudly on behalf of their constituents, the "pavement politics" on which they were weaned during the long years of third party irrelevance will ensure limitless opportunities for horse-trading. So far, the questions to Lib Dems about what they intend to get out of the coalition have been confined to electoral reform and manifesto income tax promises. But at a practical level most Lib Dems live in hope that, now that they sit on the Government benches, they will have easier access and consequently more sympathetic ministerial responses to special pleadings to their coalition colleagues for constituency favours.
A proposed hospital closure, school building cut or town bypass deferral during my own years as a government backbencher, in the thick of the Thatcher cuts of the 1980s, provided ample opportunities to threaten to vote against the government to galvanise ministers into policy U-turns. If Lib Dem backbenchers choose to hunt as a pack, agreeing to stick together on behalf of each other, should cuts impact adversely on their pet projects, they could successfully dilute whatever the Treasury has in store for their local services.
But Tory MPs will also be engaged in their own competitive Dutch auction to see who can make the loudest noise against local cuts. If the proposal to reduce the size of the Commons is enacted, every Tory county will probably lose one Tory held constituency. He who shouts louder than his neighbour – and votes against the Government – may save his local skin at the re-selection competition in two years' time when seats are amalgamated. Mr Cameron's effective opposition to a poor ministerial decision may just be an example many of his backbenchers might choose to follow.Reuse content