John McTernan: The coalition has promised reforms, but it's more difficult to get results to match the pledges

The publication of the Scotland Bill this week was of immense importance to Scots, but in another light is just a further example of the activism of the coalition. Health Reform, an emergency budget, welfare reform, free schools, a Strategic Defence and Security Review, constitutional reform, a Comprehensive Spending Review. And those are just the headlines.

Since the publication of the coalition agreement in May, Whitehall has been flat out responding to the demands of the new ministers. An ambiguous election result – where, arguably everyone lost – has led to an unambiguously activist administration. What is the cause?

First, there are the public reasons. On the fiscal side, Cameron and Osborne have repeatedly warned that if action wasn't taken then Britain would be buffeted by the markets just as Greece and Ireland have. And on the domestic policy front the story consistently told by senior Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers is that the coalition is a marriage made in heaven – the economic liberalism of the Tories to the social liberalism of the Lib Dems.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But second, and perhaps more important, is the private reason – the influence of the man coalition insiders call the Master. Who is this? A leading Tory thinker? A senior staffer? George Osborne? No, it's Tony Blair, whose book A Journey is regarded in senior Tory circles as a road map for would-be reformers. From the top down, Blair's regret that he didn't move fast enough on public service reform is taken as an injunction, spurring the coalition on to faster and faster change.

The government has looked good for the last seven months. But so they should have. During your honeymoon the 'bully pulpit' provided by office means that whatever you say becomes a headline. You drive the news agenda because you are the news agenda. The problems come when your policies come to fruition. Then you have a record which can be matched against your promises. 'Under-promise and over-deliver' is the best advice any politician can have, yet so few take it. The coalition has done the opposite and over the next four and a half years they will undoubtedly fall short.

There are two main areas to watch. One is operations – those things directly in the control of government. For example, IDS's welfare reforms turn on a new 'real-time' tax system being implemented by HMRC. Hmm, a government IT contract, what could possibly go wrong?

The other is the reforms that have to be delivered by others – the greatest of which is health. At the moment no-one in England has a serious problem with the NHS. The coalition is unleashing two things: taking 20 billion in efficiencies out of the NHS budget while transferring it into the hands of GPs. Any problems – large or small – caused by cuts will be blamed on reform. Implementation is when the going gets tough, and this time Tony's book offers no easy answers.