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Expert Comment: Half-term report for the Coalition

Parliament Tuesday 8 January 2013

Professor Bill Jones from Hope's Department of Politics, History, Media and Communications, assesses the Coalition's progress at the midpoint of its term.

The Coalition's 'Half Term Report' has not received a good press on the whole, for three main reasons. Firstly, it has not achieved a great deal. Reducing the deficit and scale of borrowing plus encouraging growth has been a task beyond this government. Osborne confidently expected to clear the deficit by 2016 but has been forced to push back that date to 2018. He also hoped borrowing would be on the way down by 2016 but, given the lack of growth, decreased revenues have required levels of borrowing way above forecast. Economic growth was to be led by a private sector taking up the slack of a public sector reduced by government cuts but it now looks quite possible that the economy will slide into a triple dip recession once figures for the last quarter come out in a few days time. 

Secondly, the report's claims for success seem trifling compared with the problems faced by the country. The Times compares the exercise to Tony Blair's annual reports after 1997: an exercise so ridiculed for its obvious spinning of facts that it was dropped, unlamented, by 2000. 'David Cameron and Nick Clegg need not feel they have to trouble everyone with a repetition.' advises The Times editorial. 

Thirdly, the report was effectively a 're-launch' of the Coalition - we had one last spring, remember, too?- and the very fact it needed to be done says much about yesterday's events. There have been huge disagreements over welfare, reform of the constitution and the EU. Liberal Democrat ratings have fallen into single figures and Clegg is desperate to establish his party as distinctive; most probably as the 'conscience' of the Coalition, restraining salivating Conservatives from chomping up public services. Tories, for their part are furious at Clegg's refusal to support the Tory plan to redraw constituency boundaries in a way which would deliver an extra 20 seats to their side of the House. The contrast with the sun kissed birth of the Coalition way back in May 2010 in the Rose Garden of Number 10 is stark. 

Moreover, it did not help at all that Lord Strathclyde, in the Cabinet as Leader of the House of Lords, should have resigned on the same day as the putative re-launch, claiming that the Coalition in the Upper House is 'broken'.  

Yet, the agreement to continue in government seems solid enough. Clegg and Cameron yesterday seemed to offer a credible partnership, even if founded upon ice which in places seem to be showing signs of cracking. The odd contradiction is that while Coalition MPs savage each other across the floor and in the media, behind the closed doors of Whitehall, governed by the weekly 'Quad' meetings of Clegg, Cameron, Osborne and Alexander, ministerial cooperation seems to be harmoniously effective. Behind the noise of public bickering this still seems to be a government much less riven by disputes than that led by Tony Blair until 2007 or indeed, his ill-fated successor, Gordon Brown.

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