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Thomas Haynes

Who will stand up for the “strivers”?

February 25th, 2011 by Thomas Haynes

There are over 11 million people in Britain today who do not have proper political representation. They have no-one (or at least no-one with serious influence) looking out for their interests. They are the “strivers”.

Patrick O’Flynn, Chief Political Commentator at the Express, defines them as “People who are committed to striving for self-reliance and to improved circumstances, despite not being born into privilege or wealth”.

Using Resolution Foundation research, we can identify who these “strivers” are. They earn between £8,000 (the low end for a single person without children) to £42,500 a year (the top end for a couple with two children). They are not reliant on means-tested benefits handed out by the state.

Crucially, while they are “too rich to rely heavily on all the support mechanisms of the welfare state”, many are also “too poor to flourish in the market economy”.

They are neglected, overlooked, ignored – and are facing huge challenges.

The Resolution Foundation calculates that they could end up being over £700 worse off this year as they are hit by the “triple crunch“  of spending cuts, inflation and static pay. And that assumes, of course, that they keep their jobs in the face of a sluggish economy, public sector shrinkage and its resulting effects on private sector employment.

The “strivers” are already living at the edge of their means. Many are struggling to keep their heads above water – to avoid falling into reliance on the welfare state.

Where do they sit politically? If the Resolution Foundation research is accurate, they probably feel overtaxed. If the “strivers” saved 5% of their disposable income each year, it would still take 45 years to save up a deposit for a house. And then there is the absurd level of utility bills and the problem of static wages.  Some tax relief would be a welcome respite from an ever-increasing cost of living.

They probably dislike the benefits culture of the last decade. They are working hard and trying to be self-reliant. People on benefits who approach the same standard of living as they enjoy (or even match it) will hardly be seen in a positive light. Means-testing – with its noble aims of both helping the poor and keeping public spending as low as possible – could be viewed with resentment by the people who narrowly miss out.

It is likely that they are just as angered by bankers. Think of the “Main Street” vs. “Wall Street” distinction in the United States. Many people who might be thought to have Right-of-centre views on welfare are also some of the first to criticise the greed and excess of big-money capitalism.

They are probably also concerned about immigration. The “strivers” are not reliant on state benefits: the large bulk of their income comes from employment. Any perceptions that immigrants are taking British jobs – whether true or not – won’t endear them to mass immigration.

Most “strivers” cannot afford to use private health or education: it is likely that, along with most other people in Britain, they strongly support public services like schools and the NHS. They are also likely, again as with most other people in Britain, to take a tough stance on crime.

These are generalisations and assumptions: when dealing with a group this large, that is impossible to avoid. But there is an argument for a more “striver”-friendly approach to politics: supportive of public services, tough on welfare reform, crime,immigration and bankers, and in favour of tax relief for hard-working families.

Does the coalition offer that? In some senses, yes. Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms will probably be very popular among the “strivers”, as will the cap on immigration. The coalition does support public services, although the scale of changes proposed may lead to widespread criticism that they are privatising “by the back door”.

In other ways, however, the coalition is overlooking this group. George Osborne aims – very nobly – to shield the poor as much as possible from the cuts. Hence the raising of the tax-free allowance, the refocusing of some benefits (like the EMA) on the poorest, the exemption of low-paid public sector workers from the pay freeze, and more.

But as the Resolution Foundation argues, this won’t really help the “strivers”. The gains that they make from these changes – notably from the tax-free allowance and things like the council tax freeze – will be wiped out by inflation, lagging pay and cuts to some of the few benefits that they do get. Rich politicians claiming that “we’re all in this together” may sound very hollow to people who are losing hundreds of pounds a year.

Crime is also a weak point for the government. Ken Clarke’s liberal stance on sentencing is out of step with most voters, and the recent debates over prisoners’ voting rights won’t have helped matters.

How about Labour? Do they offer a natural home for the “strivers”?

Probably not. Look at Labour’s record in office: a lot of focus was put on increasing the scope and generosity of the welfare state, but the “strivers” didn’t gain massively. Immigration increased significantly, leading to daily media cries that British jobs are being taken by people from abroad. Labour also got a large part of the blame for the recession – a cause of the “strivers’” pain now.

Ed Miliband has talked about the “squeezed middle”, although he was very non-specific about what that meant and hasn’t yet offered any policies to help them. Unless he changes tack significantly, it seems likely that Labour’s previous overlooking of the “strivers” (the Resolution Foundation points to the 10p tax debacle as an example) may continue, or at least the memory of it may remain.

Of course, things aren’t as simple as one party just waving a magic wand; representing the “strivers”, winning a landslide and saving the nation.

There is no guarantee that pro-”striver” policies would help the country. Too rigorous restrictions on immigration, for example, could damage the economy (and possibly social cohesion). Likewise with too forceful restrictions on the banks. Showing overt support for public services – perhaps by mitigating cuts – and putting more people in prison do not go hand in hand with deficit reduction.

Likewise, parties should try to represent everyone – and to balance their often competing interests. A tough stance on welfare, for example, might please the “strivers”. But it could really harm people on benefits, most of whom are even more vulnerable than the “strivers” themselves. It is also worth noting that “strivers” isn’t a set group: many people who are dependent on benefits would fall under O’Flynn’s definition of “strivers”, but are prevented by their circumstances (for example health or ability to find work) from getting there.

The purpose of this piece is not to make any judgement on the pros or cons of policies that might appeal to “strivers”; the aim is to highlight the 11 million people whose opinions are not obviously being represented by our current political parties.

There was a perception that New Labour looked out for the very poor and the very rich, and that it forgot about the people in the middle. Unfortunately, it seems possible that the coalition will be viewed in a similar way.

Which begs the question, who will stand up for the “strivers”? Some journalists – such as Patrick O’Flynn – are championing their cause already.

But among the mainstream parties, there is far less advocacy for the “”strivers”. That poses big risks both to the “strivers” themselves – in terms of policies that unintentionally hammer them even more – and to our political process.

We often wonder why people are going off politics: here is part of the answer.

When is a public service not a public service?

February 22nd, 2011 by Thomas Haynes

It is a question that will be debated fiercely in the coming months.

David Cameron’s plans to transform Britain’s public sector – to be published in full in a couple of weeks – look set to open up our public services to a multitude of providers, whether public, private or charitable.

Services will still be funded and regulated by the state, but will be provided by a range of different organisations. Gone will be the presumption that public services are only or even mainly provided by public bodies.

Is that privatisation? I don’t think so. If a service is paid for by our taxes and regulated by the government, then I think it is still a public service – regardless of who actually provides it.

Many people, though, will disagree. There are already comments on Twitter and across the blogosphere that the government is planning to privatise pretty much everything. Presumably they think David Cameron is out to destroy our entire welfare state, from the NHS through to education through to benefits.

That is a long way from the reality. But with the Tories’ reputation for privatisation, the breadth of these reforms and the Chancellor’s deficit reduction going hand in hand, it isn’t hard to imagine those criticisms gaining some traction.

Cameron’s reforms could really benefit Britain. But – and, in the context of the last few weeks, this is a big “but” – they need to be articulated well. Even the best policy in the world can flounder if it is attacked by all sides, and that is the risk if the government doesn’t communicate this right.

Think of tuition fees, or the NHS reforms, or the proposed forestry sales. Whatever you think of them, they are all examples of policies that ran into difficulty partly because the government was unable to explain them well. The government was therefore unable to fight its corner effectively, or to build coalitions of support for its proposals.

That must not happen with these reforms. The public sector unions will hate them, and the Miliband-Balls Labour Party is guaranteed to turn them into a key dividing line.

For the coalition to retain the momentum, this policy must be approached differently. Number 10 must learn from some recent mistakes, and do everything possible to build support and ensure that the Left doesn’t control the narrative. Otherwise these reforms – which are brilliant in principle – could flounder and fail.

Our public services will remain public – in terms of funding, regulation and a lot of provision – under Cameron’s plans. But there is a chance that people won’t believe it unless that argument is made from day one.

A challenge for Downing Street’s new “sofa squad”, that’s for sure. Here’s hoping that they rise to it.

Voters deserve a serious debate on AV – not these attack ads

February 22nd, 2011 by Thomas Haynes

I used to be strongly against AV. Partly this was because – despite supporting the current government – I am not a fan of coalition politics. It was partly because I am, by nature, a constitutional conservative. And partly, I must admit, it was because I swallowed too much anti-AV propaganda without thinking it all through first (see here, and my follow-up here).

Now I’m in two minds. Political reform has never been high on my priority list, and I’m not convinced that AV would be as big a change as some people (on both sides of the campaign) make out. To my amateur eye, it seems that it could lead to larger, single-party majorities just as much as it could lead to more hung parliaments.

I’m going to read more about it all, and try to keep an open mind. I’ll make my final decision during the referendum campaign proper.

But this isn’t a post about my own views on AV: it is a post on the campaign as a whole.

We deserve a full, open debate about AV, FPTP and all the surrounding issues. False generalisations, half-truths, scaremongering – none of those have any place in a decent referendum campaign (although I am not naive enough to think that they will ever disappear entirely).

Consequently, I was very disappointed to see this online ad from the No2AV campaign:

Could we spend the referendum money on better things? In my opinion, yes. But that isn’t the point.

This ad makes no effort to either defend FPTP or to discredit AV. All it does it try to smear the “Yes” campaign, by suggesting – less than subtly – that because of their desire for change, the welfare of some children may be placed in jeopardy.

It attempts to emotionally blackmail people into voting “No”. It would seem to come straight out of the Karl Rove school of political campaigning – where the ends justify the means.

That is not how I think politics should be conducted. This referendum should be a debate, an argument. We should test the merits of each side’s ideas and allow voters to come up with their own conclusions. Negative campaigning of this kind should have no place in the campaign.

I sincerely hope that No2AV remove these ads. They represent an ugly, unintelligent form of politics.

Whatever I decide about AV, one thing is for sure: I won’t be rushing to help the official No2AV campaign if they carry on like this.

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Nigel Lawson’s advice for George Osborne

February 22nd, 2011 by Thomas Haynes

Now that the (hundred day?) honeymoon is over, and at least until the fruits of our policies show up (which will not be for some time yet), they will attack us for whatever we do; for ‘primitive monetarism’ if we continue on our present course and for weakness, U-turns and general Heath/Barber recidivism if we do not. There is no way in which we can avoid being attacked, whatever we do: we must be guided by the reflection that it is better to be attacked for the right policies than for the wrong ones and concentrate on getting our own message across, for which purpose incidentally, ‘primitive’ language is essential: nothing else will be understood.

Those words were written by Nigel Lawson to Geoffrey Howe in August 1979 (quoted in Thatcher’s Britain by Richard Vinen).

But replace “monetarism” with “spending cuts”, and it is excellent advice for George Osborne today.

Whatever the coalition tries to focus on – whether it’s the “Big Society”, public service reform or anything else – they will be unable to escape the shadow of spending cuts. Every action this government takes will (unfortunately) be in the context of severe pressure on spending, and it is highly doubtful that the media will move on from the cuts narrative.

The benefits of deficit reduction are long term: we will not feel better off in the next few years (indeed, we will all feel significantly worse off).

Because of this, the government is doomed to be attacked and it will become massively unpopular. Labour will probably open up huge leads in the polls (20%?) and will focus relentlessly on the “human stories” of the cuts.

If George Osborne is convinced that his policies are right – which he obviously is – then he should take Lawson’s advice. It is better to be attacked for doing the right thing than for changing course when the going gets tough.

The point about simple language is also a good one. “Eliminating the structural deficit over the course of this parliament” is an excellent aim – but it doesn’t have the public resonance of “we’ll balance the books before the next election”.

Do the right thing, stick to it and keep the message simple. Very basic advice, you might think. But as the cuts bite and the anger turns towards Number 11, it will be useful for the Chancellor to remember nonetheless.

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For once, I agree with Tom Watson

February 14th, 2011 by Thomas Haynes

One of the most frustrating things I hear when talking about politics is the belief that “Tories only care about the rich”. There is a widespread stereotype that conservatism is by the rich, for the rich, and to hell with everybody else.

In many ways, the Left has managed to shape the political landscape. More government spending and state action is “fair”, “just”, “necessary”, etc etc. Any belief other than this must automatically be nasty, selfish, cold-hearted, ignorant or just plain stupid.

Or, if you listen to some Lefties, all of the above.

It is, of course, complete rubbish. Just because the political Right has a different philosophy, different approaches and solutions, it doesn’t mean that we don’t care about social justice. We are not all out to help the rich and screw the poor. Equality of opportunity is – I believe – at the heart of what it means to be conservative.

So it is incredibly depressing to see the Conservative Party thoughtlessly reinforcing the “rich party” stereotype. Apparently we have been auctioning off internships with City firms at an exclusive fundraising event.

Much like my blog colleague René Kinzett - who has also written about this issue – I am not naive about the murky world of political fundraising. We all know the kind of things that go on, even if it isn’t always comfortable to admit.

But this is different. Internships are increasingly the preserve of the rich anyway – for people who can afford not to work for a salary, who live close enough to London to make it viable and who have parents who can open the doors and pay the bills.

In theory, work experience is a way of widening opportunity, of giving people access to careers that would otherwise be closed to them. But in reality it seems to work out differently. We seem to be heading towards a self-perpetuating City class, where families and family friends pack the vacancies with their own.

To some degree, that will always happen. It is foolishly idealistic to believe otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t always strive to make internships more open, accessible to everyone no matter what background they have.

By auctioning off work experience to wealthy donors, we seem to have lost sight of that aim. Making a few thousand pounds per placement seems to have taken precedence over the principle that money and opportunity do not have to be one and the same.

Instead of fighting for wider opportunity, the party has unfortunately helped to further – albeit in a relatively minor way – the developing exclusivity of the internship system.

Quite frankly, it makes me angry. I accept that rich people do have an advantage, and possibly (although depressingly) they may always have one. But that means that they can look after themselves: they do not need the Conservative Party to act as a Job Centre for their children.

Rather, we should be trying to promote equality of opportunity throughout British society – and that means throughout the City of London too. I don’t have a problem with successful bankers, lawyers and accountants: I just think everyone should have a shot at becoming one.

For once, I find myself agreeing with Tom Watson:

This is a crass example of rich Tories buying privilege. Most young people could only dream of this opportunity. The Conservatives flog them like baubles and fill their coffers with the profits. It is obscene.

Did anyone within CCHQ think about how this auction would appear to the public? Of how it makes the party appear? How it plays into the hands of the “Tories are for the rich” arguments of the Left? And, most importantly, how it undermines our talk of equality of opportunity?

Either no-one in Tory HQ did think about those things, which indicates a worrying lack of understanding of the “real world”. Or they did consider them, but didn’t care.

That, in my opinion, would be far worse…

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Let’s the honest: the “Big Society” is an awful phrase

February 14th, 2011 by Thomas Haynes

What does the “Big Society” mean? That seems to be a question doing the rounds at the moment (indeed, it has been asked since the term first entered political debate before the election).

Is it replacing a big government with more individual involvement? Is it an increase in community activism and spirit? Is it just a cynical cover to make spending cuts more palatable? Is it just soft electioneering, designed to woo the swing voters without actually offering much in reality?

So far, the government hasn’t been able to offer a definitive answer: the debate carries on.

But why is it so hard to define? If it is David Cameron’s “mission”, why has he not been able to articulate it more successfully?

Mainly, I think, because the phrase is awful. “Big Society” means nothing. Even the word “society” means a lot of things to a lot of different people – and then they added the word “big” to it as well. I honestly can’t imagine how they ended up with such a meaningless, clumsy phrase.

The concept, as I understand it, is fairly straightforward: under Labour the government became too dominant, too intrusive, and too controlling. The Conservatives, on the other hand, believe in people – in the power of communities. Public services will improve with more active involvement, and our country will be better off if we rely less on the state and more on ourselves and our neighbours. In other words, we need to ask the “JFK question”: what can we do for our country?

Self-reliance, volunteering, community spirit, localism. The “Big Society” is a way of harnessing these forces, and using them to reshape the way the British state works.

The problem is that it is a relatively simple concept, but not one that can be explained well in a couple of words. Perhaps that’s why they came up with “Big Society”? Maybe it was an attempt to create a catch-all phrase that all the other concepts could sit under.

It clearly hasn’t worked. What it has actually done is to muddle the issue, distracting attention from the very worthwhile agenda and instead focusing it on a debate about words.

Unfortunately, Team Cameron seem to have fallen into an all too common trap, the belief that everything can be reduced to buzzwords and catchphrases. As the “Big Society” so ably demonstrates, that is not the case.

The “Big Society” is more of a philosophy than a brand. It is a belief about how the state and society should interact, how a government in the 21st century should operate. That is not something that can be adequately explained by a two-word phrase.

Neither is it something that is electorally potent as a concept. Rather than talking about a “Big Society”, the party should have talked more about the results of that policy: free schools, police commissioners, local referenda, community organisers, local rights to take over threatened services, etc.

Those are things that will impact on people’s everyday lives, and things that can be explained in election literature. Trying to group them all together under a “Big Society” banner just confused the issue. A case of spin masking, rather than highlighting, the substance.

So what will become of the Prime Minister’s “Big Society”? I sincerely hope it succeeds: I think it could change Britain for the better.

But the lesson to be learned is an important one: spin can be a double-edged sword. In some cases it can create a powerful brand, that will stick in the minds of voters and leave a positive impression. But in other cases it will hamper a sensible debate, distract attention from the substance and actually hinder attempts to turn policies into reality.

I don’t think the phrase will ever catch on. It would have done so by now! But hopefully the principles – empowerment, responsibility, community – will survive the current troubles that the “Big Society” is in.

Maybe next time the people within Team Cameron will pause and think about how their spin will be received. Will it excite political anoraks (myself included) but fall completely flat with the public at large? Or will there be more recognition that not everyone is as interested in politics and political philosophy as politicians are, and that sometimes too much spin can stop the substance getting through?

Time will tell. For now, though, I hope that the “Big Society” pulls through – despite its awful name.

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Labour doesn’t need a credible economic policy: they need an attack dog. Ed Balls is their man for the job

January 21st, 2011 by Thomas Haynes

When he won the Labour leadership, Ed Miliband claimed that he represented “the new generation” within the Labour Party. It was his way of saying “I’m not Blair or Brown. We’ve moved on, and left them behind”. His policy review – effectively starting from scratch – is part of the same process.

Whereas David Cameron embarked upon brand “decontamination”, Ed Miliband must attempt brand “disassociation” – convincing the electorate that he is not Gordon Brown Mark Two.

That task was made harder yesterday when Alan Johnson resigned, leading to a hasty mini-reshuffle in which Ed Balls became Shadow Chancellor.

Balls was, after all, a senior advisor to Gordon Brown – both before he was an MP, and after (much like Ed Miliband). He was the architect of many of Brown’s fiscal policies, and must share some of the blame for Brown’s mistakes.

Surely, then, Tories must be overjoyed at Balls’ new job? The “sons of Brown” really are in charge: clobbering Labour with Brown’s record (and associated unpopularity) is now an easier task.

Surely Ed Balls – who has been called not just a “deficit denier”, but a “deficit enthusiast” – will be unable to articulate a coherent economic policy beyond cutting less and spending more? It might just be a return to the days when Brown (egged on by Balls, by most accounts) refused to accept the need for cuts?

While that may be true, the rise of Balls isn’t necessarily a matter for Tory celebration. Over the next couple of years – at least – Labour won’t need a credible economic policy.

The spending cuts haven’t really begun to hit yet: that will happen this year. But the latest poll from YouGov already gives Labour a 7% lead over the Tories, and the government has a net approval rating of -22%. Give it a few months, and Labour will probably be enjoying a 15% lead, or more (and government approval will sink incredibly low).

Whoever won the election was going to have to cut spending, and as a result become deeply unpopular. But the indecisive election result led to a coalition – which means that two of the three main parties in British politics are the ones implementing the cuts.

Labour, on the other hand, escaped into opposition. And they are now the only significant party that anti-government voters will turn to. The days of the Lib Dem protest vote – for people who opposed the government, but couldn’t bring themselves to support the official opposition – are gone.

And our electoral system, even if it changes to AV, means that they will remain the only real opposition to the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

All Labour need to do to storm ahead in the polls are two things: to not be the coalition, and to hit the government hard over the most painful cuts.

That first one is (obviously) already in the bag. And the second can be achieved by having an attack dog, a political streetfighter, as Shadow Chancellor.

Step forward, Ed Balls.

Like him or loathe him, Balls can score political points. Just think of the way he savaged Michael Gove over Bulding Schools for the Future last summer. During the new government’s honeymoon, he was the only Labour figure to draw blood. He is a natural opposition politician.

Which is why his appointment as Shadow Chancellor is not one that Tories should greet with joy. He is going to cause the government pain. Lots of it.

Of course, that might not help Labour in the long run. When voters’ minds turn more towards the next election, they will begin to question his ability to run an economy. And a consistent anti-cuts platform (that Labour generally, and Balls specifically will find hard to resist) may damage credibility.

On the other hand, the government may become so unpopular, and the cuts may hurt so much, that the electorate doesn’t care who runs the economy – as long as it isn’t George Osborne.

Time will tell. Right now, though, one thing is clear: Labour doesn’t need a credible economic policy. All they need is someone to hit Osborne hard, and to capitalise on the coalition’s coming unpopularity.

Worryingly for us Tories, Ed Balls is the man to do it.

Andy Coulson was right to resign – but David Cameron must think very carefully about his replacement

January 21st, 2011 by Thomas Haynes

Back in September I wrote this:

While Andy Coulson was editor of News of the World, several journalists at the paper were responsible for hacking into the phones of Princes William and Harry (as well as other high-profile figures). Coulson claimed to know nothing about the activities, although he did resign from the paper.

Today The New York Times has run an article alleging that Coulson did know about the hacking, and even “actively encouraged” one of his reporters to do it. The Guardian has reported on these allegations here.

Andy Coulson is now David Cameron’s Director and Communications and Planning, on a salary of £140,000. He is a powerful figure and presumably exerts an enormous influence within the government (albeit probably not as much as Alistair Campbell did).

Coulson should step aside while a full, independent enquiry investigates the claims. If he did know about and even encourage these crimes, it casts serious doubt on his ethics and his honesty. And I think I speak for most people when I say that I want the prime minister’s Communications Director to be ethical in his practices and honest in the information he gives to the public.

I hope he has been telling the truth, and that an enquiry will vindicate him. But either way the public must know. Andy Coulson has questions to answer.

My logic was simple: the Tories slammed Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell for their (dis)honesty in office. The rise of spin played a crucial role in eroding public trust in politicians. Now that the Tories have finally returned to office, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Considering the nature of the allegations, I thought it appropriate that Coulson should step aside, while the matter was investigated.

Obviously – and unfortunately – that didn’t happen. However, due to the pressure of continuing allegations he has decided to resign as David Cameron’s Communications Director. Whether the allegations are true or not, we still don’t know. But he has made the right decision for the government.

However, Coulson did play a crucial role in David Cameron’s team. In essence, he was the “man on the street”. He is not privately educated, didn’t go to university and worked his way up through the tabloid press. In other words, he is almost the complete reverse of the rest of Team Cameron (which is publicly-schooled, Oxbridge educated and – by and large – comprised of professional politicians).

Although Coulson didn’t alter the Cameron-Steve Hilton strategy – as noted here by Iain Martin – he did provide a different viewpoint within the party leadership. He was a tabloid man, with popular views on crime and tax, and more of an ability to “sell” policies to the electorate.

Now that he’s gone, the prime minister must think very carefully about who replaces him.

There is a danger – judging by the rest of Cameron’s top team (Hilton, Osborne, Clegg…) – that the PM will choose someone similar to himself. Someone who is very bright, but perhaps lacks an intuitive understanding of the aspirational working and middle classes.

As cuts come and the pain really bites, that understanding will be crucial. Otherwise the coalition will just be pilloried as a group of out of touch rich boys, who don’t understand – or care about – real people.

Today David Cameron lost his down to earth, “man on the street” PR chief. He would be wise to find another one – and fast.

“I believe in power”: why David Cameron wouldn’t be opposed to a merger with the Lib Dems

January 3rd, 2011 by Thomas Haynes

Reading all of the recent commentary about a potential Conservative-Lib Dem merger (see here and here, for example) I was reminded about an excellent article Paul Goodman wrote at the end of David Cameron’s first six months in office.

He ended it with this anecdote:

At Prime Minister’s Questions preparation with Iain Duncan Smith, he’d often sit silently, brow furrowed, mouth working silently, swiftly scribbling some lines on a piece of paper, before coming up with something that was always well-crafted and usually worked.  During a lull in proceedings, I remember John Hayes launching into one of the politico-philosophical disquietations characteristic of him, ending with a conclusion about what conservatives believe and don’t believe.  “I believe in power,” said Cameron, shortly.  It’s not all he believes in – remember the Big Society.  But he thinks that the parsnips aren’t buttered without it.  This is why I suspect that he wants the Coalition to carry on indefinitely.

Like Goodman, I don’t believe that a desire for power is Cameron’s sole political belief: I think he has a fairly well-defined set of political principles.

But I think it would be fair to say that his belief in power is primary. After all, without power there is (relatively) little that a politician can achieve. And David Cameron clearly didn’t come into politics just to shout from the sidelines.

With that in mind, it is easy to see why he dived straight into a full coalition with the Lib Dems in May, rather than pushing for a more limited, shorter agreement. Cameron seemingly feared three things:

1. That if he went for a more limited agreement (or if he had opted for just a minority government) that he would be held to ransom by the Tory Right. That would have severely limited his ability to wield power.

2. That if he didn’t give the Lib Dems an offer they couldn’t refuse, that they would do a deal with Labour – thus preventing Cameron from getting into power at all.

3. That if he only pushed for a short-term deal, he might lose another election. That would see him ejected from power.

So what will happen at the next election, and beyond? It very much depends on circumstances. Let’s consider a few scenarios:

A. In spite of the cuts, the Conservatives approach the election riding high in the polls, well ahead of Labour. The Lib Dems languish on single digits. In this scenario, I think Cameron would try and go it alone, to get a healthy majority (freeing himself both of a dependency on the Right and the inherent difficulties of coalition politics). However, this would depend on the political views of the Tory candidates.

B. The Conservatives and Labour remain neck-and-neck in the polls, with the Lib Dems trailing well behind. Here, I think Cameron would offer the Lib Dems a “free run” in their seats in return for a continued coalition, hoping to buy their support in case there was another hung parliament (as would be likely). That would probably keep Cameron in power.

C. The Conservatives and Lib Dems both approach the election with good poll ratings, while Labour struggle. I would expect Cameron to try to continue the coalition in this situation. After all, why risk rocking the boat? He would probably try to maintain the status quo.

D. Labour enter the election with higher poll ratings, while both coalition parties languish behind. In this scenario, I would expect Cameron to try for a full electoral pact with the Lib Dems, so that they have a decent shot of holding onto a combined majority by giving each other “free runs” in seats all across the country.

E. Both Labour and the Lib Dems approach the election riding high in the polls, with the Tories struggling. In this case David Cameron would probably be quite desperate, and be willing to offer the Lib Dems a lot to try and avoid returning to opposition.

As yet, it is impossible to know which of those scenarios is the most likely. But in each one we can see that a continued agreement with the Lib Dems – in one form or another – is possible (even in scenario A, if a lot of the Conservative candidates are Right-wingers).

In fact, I would go further: it is extremely likely that David Cameron will favour some form of agreement with the Liberal Democrats beyond the current coalition.

Does that mean a merger, as a lot of recent speculation suggests? To give a classic politician’s answer, no and yes.

No in the sense that a full merger is unlikely before (or during) the next election. There will be a lot of pressure within both parties to avoid one, and I think it is doubtful whether Cameron or Clegg will have sufficient clout with their grassroots to force one through.

However, if there is an electoral pact and/or agreement for a continued coalition post-2015, I think a merger at some point is very likely. How can two parties co-exist in government for (say) eight years, or a decade, and then just go their separate ways? In some countries this would be possible, but it is alien to the British political tradition. And I suspect that the government won’t be able to persuade the public that this is the type of “new politics” that they want.

If we assume that a belief in power is central to Cameron’s philosophy (which I think is fair) then it is likely that he will push for a longer agreement with the Lib Dems.

That doesn’t mean that he is actively planning a merger – as some people seem to fear – but it does mean that he wouldn’t be averse to one either.

David Laws: the next Secretary of State for Education?

December 31st, 2010 by Thomas Haynes

That is my political prediction for 2011.

It looks like David Laws will return to front-line politics in the next twelve months – he certainly wants to, and the expenses ruling will probably pave the way for a comeback. But what portfolio will he get?

Probably not Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in my opinion. Danny Alexander seems to be doing a competent job as George Osborne’s deputy: there is no need to replace him. While Laws could have made an excellent Chief Secretary, I think that ship has sailed.

Perhaps Business Secretary, now that Vince Cable is a diminished figure? It might work. Cable could be eased out of the coalition in a few months – which would probably suit him anyway – and Laws put in as his replacement. That would certainly be a change that would delight the City (and some Tories). After all, Laws used to be a banker. Less “Comrade” Cable, more pro-business Laws?

Overall, though, I don’t think it will happen. Cable is certainly a tarnished figure now, but I get the impression that he is still very popular among die-hard Lib Dems. And, maybe most importantly, he gives the Lib Dem presence in government some balance. Without Cable – a former Labour Party member – in the Cabinet, the Right-leaning Lib Dems would really have gained a stranglehold on the party. Could that cause more anxiety and tension among Left-leaning Lib Dems? I suspect so.

On that basis, I expect Cable to remain in his post for now (until the strain of being in the coalition becomes too much, although I think that will occur after Laws makes his return).

Of course, there are plenty of other cabinet positions. But I think that David Laws will replace Michael Gove as Education Secretary.

Why? Gove – unfortunately – has had a faltering start. The botched Building Schools for the Future announcement, and the cuts (now reversed) in funding for school sports and Booktrust show an unfortunate lack of consultation and consideration of the consequences – both PR and actual.

While he was a formidable “ideas man” in opposition, Gove hasn’t turned out to be a star in government. Unlike Iain Duncan Smith or Eric Pickles, for example, Gove has not grasped his department by the neck and bent it to his will. Neither has he avoided fierce media criticism – sometimes deserved – or the humiliation of policy u-turns.

Education is a crucial department. If Gove’s reforms are going to succeed – as I sincerely hope they will – they will need an extremely competent minister at the helm. Consultation will be necessary: reformers will need as many allies as possible in their battle with the education establishment. Firm but inclusive should be the aim (Gove only seems to have mastered the first part).

If Gove remains in place, I fear that his reforming agenda will become unstuck. That would have tragic consequences for the British education system, and the millions of children in our country. Which is why I predict – and, although it pains me to say it, hope – that he will be replaced by Laws.

During the coalition negotiations in May, Laws was rumoured to be in line for the education brief. In many ways he is a natural fit. He was Lib Dem schools spokesman in opposition, developed the pupil premium idea (which the coalition is now implementing) and opposing too much state control over schools. He is also an economic liberal, meaning that he recognises the power of choice and competition.

He is, perhaps, just the man to take forward Tory schools reforms while simultaneously reassuring hesitant Lib Dems. And a new face at the department would, in essence, allow them to start again – to hit the ground running and try to develop a real coalition for reform.

And what of Michael Gove? By all accounts he is extraordinarily intelligent. While he may not be suited to being a front-line minister, the coalition should definitely not throw him out into the cold. Perhaps a cross-departmental brief, an “ideas man” in the Cabinet Office (working alongside Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin)? There he could influence government policy once the coalition agreement runs out.

Of course, I may look back at this post next year and think it was an absurd prediction! Politics is, after all, very unpredictable.

But, right now, I think that David Laws is coming back – and that Michael Gove is vulnerable.