Acting like an opposition while in government can only take you so far

In a more hostile media climate, the coalition's shifts would be portrayed as crass opportunism and

Tomorrow David Cameron will complete the beauty parade of party leaders offering their take on crony capitalism, following on from Ed Miliband's conference speech, which he amplified last week, and Nick Clegg's call for a "John Lewis economy". Expect Cameron to balance a fierce rhetorical attack on boardroom excess ("fill your boots capitalism") with plenty of warm words about the virtues of proper markets and a nod towards the sunny possibilities of "popular capitalism" -- a theme that all Tory leaders since Eden and Macmillan have returned to, along with a good few of their Labour counterparts.

The speech comes in advance of Vince Cable's forthcoming proposals on reigning in executive pay, timed to pre-empt the City bonus season, and it tops off a concerted three week campaign by the coalition to wrestle the theme of "responsible capitalism" out of Labour's hands. Turn the clock back four months, to when Miliband was being derided for his conference speech, and it is clear that this is not a theme that Conservative strategists will have been planning to major on. It has rudely intruded upon their preferred narratives of deficit reduction, broken Britain, and the Big Society.

Leave to one side for a moment your views on the policies (or lack of) to deal with so-called crony capitalism and consider what this episode tells us about the governing habits -- statecraft would be too grand a term -- of the coalition, in particular the Conservatives. A blitz of pamphlets, articles, speeches and briefings have made clear their determination to close down the rhetorical political space that Labour was seeking to occupy. As an orchestrated act of attempted political land-grabbing it has certainly been of the predatory variety. There is, of course, scope for plenty of cynicism about what this will achieve and whether the rhetorical arms-race that has gathered pace will actually lead to any real change. But it has left us in no doubt of the Conservatives' resolve not to be outflanked.

Which brings us to another revealing episode, seemingly unrelated, from last week: the Conservatives' misadventures on the reform of child benefit. At their party conference in 2010, George Osborne, in an attempt to secure his then message of"'we're all in this together", announced that any household with a higher-rate tax payer would see all of their child benefit payments axed. The result? A family with three kids relying on a single earner on £45k would lose around £2.5k; whereas a household on £80k (based on two earners each on £40k) wouldn't lose a penny.

Last week, some 15 months after this announcement and with the implementation date of next January starting to loom large, David Cameron opined that "some people" say that there is a "cliff edge issue". It's a bit unclear who he thinks the "other people" are. Indeed, their proposal creates a cliff-edge so high and steep that safety warnings should be put up for miles around. Nor is it the case that this was a technical problem that has been unearthed after months of forensic analysis by fine minds. Any official advice in DWP and HMT would have made ministers completely aware of all of the problems with the proposal -- the shortcomings are so obvious that any minster with a passing knowledge of the tax and benefit system wouldn't have needed these warnings. The lack of attention to detail, and willingness to sacrifice longer term policy coherence at the altar of short-term political positioning, is revealing.

Do these two recent episodes make a larger point? My sense is they do. Cameron and Osborne, when worried about an issue, still think and act like an opposition. They are swift, intensely political, and relentlessly focussed on their opponents. Whatever their underlying ideological convictions, they travel fairly lightly -- as oppositions tend to -- and, on issues other than their lodestar of deficit reduction, are willing to shift ground quickly to avoid being beached on the wrong side of public opinion. Crucially, however, they are susceptible to mistakes. Notably mistakes of the sort that you can get away with in opposition -- those that bite at some point in the future, at the point of actually having to deliver a policy.

Practicing this approach to politics when in power is both a strength and a weakness. The former because they can move quickly and in a united fashion to exploit a political opportunity or close down a threat, something that many parties quickly lose the capacity to do when in office. The latter because this style of governing, particularly when combined with a loose grip on policy detail, results in flaky decisions and vaulting U-turns (never mind creating turmoil for voters).

What does this mean for their political prospects? For now, not much. Given the intense media focus on Labour, and the generally benign mood towards the coalition, these episodes are smiled upon as evidence of agility and responsiveness. Yet in a more hostile media climate they would be portrayed as crass acts of opportunism and incompetence. And the question as to what the coalition, and the Conservatives in particular, are actually "for" other than deficit reduction would be asked far more pointedly.

Twenty months into office, it is time for the Conservatives to find a better balance between their opposition-like tendencies and the realities of governing. They need to achieve this before, as will happen sooner or later, the media environment turns.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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