The first year of coalition government

In the 12 months since the hastily arranged marriage between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, there have been a few highs, and many lows. Stan Hey charts the Coalition's progress, from A to Z

Wednesday 11 May 2011 00:00

A is for Arts, which the Liberal Democrats mostly like but the Tories don't, because they see them as being devised by, and for the enjoyment of, a predominantly left-wing, anti-government bunch of "agitprop" merchants, gays, chatterers and subversives who shouldn't be subsidised by public money. Hence, a big cut in Arts Council – how they hate those two words – funding, and the abolition of the Film Council. Unemployed actors will have to bite the bullet and do voice-overs for Tesco. Do Tories really have what Denis Healey once called "a hinterland", something other than politics or money on their mind?

B is for BBC, another nest of Communists and self-regarding, lefty tossers, who pay themselves too much from the licence-payers' money, almost five times as much as the Prime Minister in the case of the director-general. And that Yentob bloke has bigger expenses than Sarah Ferguson. Well, they've had a big reminder that they are state broadcasters with a five-year freeze on the licence fee, forcing cuts in salaries and expenses, and programmes too, opening the door for, ahem, Sky (see M).

B is also for Big Society, now clearly defined, at last, as er, um... self-help?

C is for the City, "Our Boys" as far as the Tories are concerned, but they daren't let on or Vince Cable will start moaning again. So a little bit of light regulation, a small tax-grab and a few smacked "botties" will be "bigged up" as a government backlash on these irresponsible wide boys. Although they may have caused a bit of bother by dabbling with dodgy derivatives, the City remains what a true Tory administration should be – wealth-making, rule-bending, self-glorifying and self-indulgent. What they can't do anything about – since Mummy Margaret deregulated the City in 1987 – is 'fess up that most of the financial institutions, investment houses and banks are now owned by Americans, Germans, Arabs, Chinese and Swiss who will ship out if regulation bites.

C is also for Culture Secretary, whose name BBC presenters keep mispronouncing – quite deliberate revenge rather than Freudian slip.

D is for Defence, or what's left of it after the cuts. Having got rid of the Ark Royal – did they think of selling it to Prince Harry as his royal yacht and crash-pad? – there was no point in having the aircraft that could no longer land or take off from it; nor indeed the pilots being trained to fly them. So that's the RAF done. The Navy is a bit 16th-century, too – "singeing the beard of the Spanish king at Cadiz" is all a bit old-fashioned. We have to prepare for what the Defence bods call "asymmetric warfare", which sounds a bit like what the football "firms" used to practise – ambush, tear up, scarper. Ultimately most likely to follow American model and subcontract conflict "solutions" to private operators – for "Blackwater" read "Wars'r'Us". Thank God Dr Fox isn't Health Secretary.

Eis for Education, and after a tricky start by Michael Gove – cancelling a state school refurbishment programme in his first week in office was a bit Dickensian – the focus has been on the huge rise in tuition fees caused by the withdrawal of government grants and funding from universities. Fortunately for the Tories, the Coalition's Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, had to deal with his "read my lips" moment, having pledged not to increase tuition fees in his party's election manifesto. With most universities eagerly pushing up their fees to a basic £27,000 for a three-year degree course, and with loans added to that, how many students will be forced to choose between £40,000 of debt or flipping burgers? A huge knowledge and social mobility gap beckons.

E is also for Eton, where so many Tory MPs went to school to learn how to rule the world – but neither David Cameron nor Prince William, for all their OE connections, could land us the 2018 World Cup.

F is for Foreign Policy, or, how to sell weapons abroad without their being used against British troops later, a tricky business with so many Arab states in revolt against their rulers who have stockpiled British arms for use against their own people. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary William Hague's plans for Libya became increasingly erratic. Having had one set of "advisers" arrested and deported, another lot are out there in order to teach Johnny Arab how to hold a rifle, T E Lawrence-style. Now we just bomb things. "Mission Creep", not Hague's nickname, seems inevitable, especially with another war likely next year (see R).

G is for Gordon, and he is much missed as the favourite punch-bag of both the Tories and Liberal Democrats. The former Labour prime minister was always an easy target and a handy comparison to their sleek, smooth-skinned, big-haired, young toff leaders. But now, Labour has its own sleek, smooth-skinned, big-haired leader, cleverly chosen ahead of his geeky brother. The next election debates could look as though a Jedward tribute trio have formed.

H is for Health & Safety, the development of which increased after serial public disasters in the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher's deregulatory government. H&S became almost as loathed by blustering Tories as its twin, Political Correctness. Hence the early moves to cut "red tape" in order for free enterprise to flourish without concerns for the public's security. Those pupils unable to afford university fees may be diverted to ecological recovery work up the chimneys of the rich.

I is for Immigration, and also for Inheritance Tax. If things look bad for the Coalition before the next election, the Tories will shore up their vote with tried and trusted recourse to keeping people of colour out of the country – unless they are wealthy non-doms and donors to the party – while reassuring dying Tories that none of their accrued wealth will be taxed for purposes of providing sanctuary to refugees or housing for immigrants. It's called Win-Win, if that doesn't sound too Korean.

J is for Johnson, Boris that is, who is becoming increasingly popular as Mayor of London despite his "Dulux dog" looks and canine demeanour. Boris has already nipped the ankles of the Tories' Marie Antoinette, Oliver Letwin – not much solidarity between Old Etonians there – over remarks about poor people from Sheffield not needing an airport so that they might holiday abroad. It is almost certain that Boris harbours a wish to become top dog for the Tories before the next election, stepping in to see off Dave, and cocking a metaphorical leg against the tree of coalition government performance.

K is for Keynes, John Maynard, who will be spinning in his grave at roughly the rate of inflation, always assuming that the cemetery involved hasn't been sold off to developers. The economics guru, who advocated government public spending as a means of stimulating the nation's growth, wouldn't recognise the Coalition's slash-and-burn policies. Cuts may be necessary but the big fear for the public sector is that they will be permanent.

L is for Liberal Democrats, the party that chose a lemming-like destiny by allying itself to a party it has always opposed, "for the sake of the nation", it said, but really for its own short spell in the sandpit of political power. Known as "human shields" or "air bags" by the Tories for taking all the public flak the Coalition's policies have created. Because of this, the Lib Dems' guileless hope of achieving voting reform in 5 May's referendum was certain to be dashed – "Vote Yes for more Lib Dem MPs"? I don't think so...

M is for Murdoch, media mogul Rupert (and family), with an empire that Darth Vader would envy, and a keen interest in shaping British political life in his favour. The Coalition has already bent over forwards for Rupert by nobbling the BBC, and by removing that part of Vince Cable's job that was meant to regulate Murdoch's ambitions, allowing the Culture Secretary to wave through a takeover of BSkyB. The illegal phone hacking that yielded stories for Murdoch's News of the World would disqualify most entrepreneurs from business but Murdoch is well protected. Anyone who backed the Conrad Black-Rupert Murdoch "Jail Double" will probably lose their bet.

N is for National Health Service, and any doctor could diagnose this as the "Achilles' Heel" of the Coalition. The botched reform proposals from Andrew Lansley have been parked for a while, to allow Lib Dems to self-medicate their rage in case it turns into an election-triggering split. But Nick Clegg, as a cure for his election humiliations, is now apparently determined to stymie Tory ambitions. The private healthcare companies which so richly endowed the Tory coffers before last year's election will just have to control their bowel movements. But they know the old Alabama saying that goes: "Them that helps make the pie gets to eat it."

O is for Osborne; George has the toughest job in the Coalition in wielding the axe to billions of pounds of government spending without making it look like an ideological attack on the working class. The £11,000 skiing holiday in Klosters in the shadow of a brutal Budget suggests the latter. Not an Old Etonian but like so many in the Cabinet an inheritor of wealth, protecting him from the increased taxes and reduced pensions that he has inflicted on the general populace as Chancellor. So if the day job goes pear-shaped, he can always go back behind the counter at his family's wallpaper shop.

P is for Public Sector, with whom the Coalition is waging a war of attrition. Most Tories, and some Lib Dems, see no need for the public sector at all. They use private schools, private health care (albeit staffed by NHS-trained staff) and private security (all those lovely moats), private transport, private pensions, private retirement homes. A century and a half of municipal assets and social development are just too costly when it comes to the priority of cutting tax for the well-off, who resent paying to fund popular public facilities. "Predicated tax" is possibly the hidden agenda, with only wars, pavement repairs and the Royal Family requiring public funds.

Q is for Question Time, Prime Minister's that is, in which Messrs Cameron and Osborne get the chance to recreate some of the atmosphere of their Bullingdon Club years by "beasting" the two Eds, Miliband and Balls, with restaurant-trashing insouciance. Anyone else – Angela Eagle, for instance – gets the full patronising treatment. Indeed, Cameron sometimes goes further and deploys the manipulator's technique, possibly learnt from his time spent fruitlessly trying to save Carlton Television's franchise, in finishing a question with just a two-choice answer. As in: "Does the Honourable Gentleman accept that he and his party buggered up the economy, yes or no?" The smart answer to which should be: "Yes, we did bugger up the economy a bit, but you still couldn't win an election.'

R is for royal wedding. In 1981, after Geoffrey Howe's brutal Budget put three million people on the dole, the nation was given the spectacle of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer's wedding as something to cheer us up. The following year, Mrs Thatcher went to war against Argentina. Now we have had a brutal Budget followed by another royal wedding – Michael Moore might see this as an Establishment conspiracy – so whom will we invade next year? Libya? Or, if it votes for home rule, Scotland? And if Prince Harry suddenly gets engaged to Cheryl Cole next year, you'll know that economy has tanked.

S is for State, the apparatus of which is being dismantled in order that it might be replaced by an 18th-century theme park, devised by Julian "Lord" Fellowes, the only state of interest being "stately homes" such as the fictional Downton Abbey. The programme created nostalgia for the old social order, large homes for Tories and their ducks to live in. A return to the 1700s, when toffs had grand estates and took taxes off the peasants, seems eminently attractive – just privatise the National Trust and restore today's fallen aristocrats to their rightful homes.

T is for Tax, in particular the 50 per cent rate which so many rich people are having to endure as they do their bit for the nation's economy, as we are all in this together. Does anyone really believe that people earning enough to be taxed at 50 per cent haven't already managed their avoidance schemes? Do we really think that the wealthy "non-doms" and overseas companies cough up tax proportionate to the money they earn in this country? Next time you get your tax demand, phone HMRC and tell them you want an immediate reduction or you're leaving the country.

U is for Unemployment, once a "price worth paying" to bring down inflation, according to David Cameron's former boss Norman Lamont (watch the footage of the "Black Wednesday" statement in 1992, and you can glimpse a baby-faced Cameron standing in the background of the owl-like chancellor). Now it seems to be a price worth paying to bring down government spending, as policemen, firefighters, nurses, teachers and civil servants are moved from the public sector to a caring, sharing private sector eager to use their skills... or not, mostly. Unemployment drives down costs, for government and companies alike. They can save money on wages and the workers who remain accept longer hours and lower pay. What's not to like for the Thomas Gradgrinds of this age?

V is for Vince Cable, the ballroom-dancing Liberal who had to be pretty light on his feet as he sashayed from "hero of the left" to a coalition cabinet post, Business Secretary, in which he is not allowed to deal with the world's most powerful businessman. After a year of tetchy cohabitation and a nasty AV campaign, Vince now thinks that the Tories might be "ruthless, calculating and tribal" – his next television appearance may be on Mastermind. There is still hope that Vince will be the first to jump ship from HMS Coalition, rocking the boat and setting up further nautical metaphors for shit-storm.

W is for Welfare, as envisaged by "the Quiet Man", Iain Duncan Smith. (Does Cameron have former party leaders such as Hague and Smith in the Cabinet to make him look good?) IDS has in mind a "one-size-fits-all benefit", consisting of a coupon for a bowl of soup, a pair of second-hand walking boots, a compass, and a jobs map of the country, so that the needy and unemployed can walk to find non-existent vacancies. But if you eat the soup, you will put on weight, and therefore be ineligible for benefit on grounds of obesity. Similarly, if you get blisters or pull muscles, you don't qualify for disability benefit. But you will get your state pension on your 87th birthday, if not later.

X is for the little mark that you write on a piece of paper which can mess up your life for a long time. So be very careful where you put it next time, because with boundary changes producing even more safe Tory seats, an independent Scotland culling dozens of Labour MPs, and the Lib Dems mocked out of existence, a Conservative landslide is on the cards.

Y A week may be a long time in politics but this past year has seemed to be a short and brutal one. Anyone can start a list of things that have been verbally or physically trashed: libraries; multi-culturalism; human rights legislation; Europe; the arts; the BBC; state schooling; council services. Most of the ideas and institutions you value about Britain seem to have come in for a kicking. And it's not over yet.

Z is for Zac Goldsmith, another Old Etonian with an inherited fortune but one at least with a care for the world in which we live. His ecological campaigning and establishment contacts made him a cert for Cameron's safe-seat shortlist and Richmond embraced him with zeal. But where is he? In the rainforest, or locked up in a wardrobe? He could be an endangered species in his own right.

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