The end of the coalition has already begun

Nick Clegg has sounded the starting gun for the next election campaign.

Forget all this talk of Cameron’s welfare speech yesterday beginning the longest election campaign in history. We’ll now get there sooner than you think

Last week, in just four words, Nick Clegg sounded the starting gun on the end of the coalition. He did it on Thursday. You may have missed it - most people have. But it happened, none the less.

And what were those 4 little words? They were the very unexciting…

"nor the prime minister"

…when telling reporters that neither he nor David Cameron were aware of the education secretary’s plans to bring back the CSE.

Picture the scene in Downing Street when Nick’s words filtered back. They had two options. Back the DPM and confirm that, yes indeed, these were rogue plans, that the Secretary of State for Education had been plotting behind everyone’s back, that he was out of control, challenging the authority of the prime minister, that it was all madness…

Or they could adopt Plan B. And confirm that they knew all about the scheme, and that it was just the poor DPM (and Sarah Teather) who were completely out of the loop. Which is what they did.

Forget all this talk of these ideas being vague notions that were being kicked out about as potential manifesto material in 2015. These were firm plans with definite implementation dates. There was plenty of talk about how Michael Gove didn’t require any new legislation to introduce these changes, that he already had the legal authority to do so.

Now there have been lots of rows in government (Jeremy Hunt being just the latest) but they have been open, frank exchanges of views. What’s more, they have generally been about legislation that first has to go under the full scrutiny of Parliament. This was different. This was secret plotting behind closed doors to make a fundamental change to the education system without consultation. Imagine just now what it’s like in the Department of Education. Meetings behind closed doors and knowing looks from those civil servants ‘in the loop' while everyone else wanders around wondering what they don’t know.

Of course, everyone will try and make out everything’s alright. But like in any relationship, it’s seldom the blazing rows round the kitchen table that signal the end - it’s when the trust goes and the secret trysts are arranged, that’s when things are really over. We’re already sending a chaperon with Cameron when he goes on his jaunt later this week. We can’t let him out of our sight.

I’ve always said that a combination of the current parliamentary arithmetic and last year’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act will cement the government in place until 2015. Now I’m not so sure.

Of course adopting Plan B was designed to prevent the PM looking weak, to confirm that he had firm control over his cabinet. But ironically, his action means Lib Dems must now presume that Tories are constantly plotting behind our backs and this will make the day to day running of government very difficult and will ultimately end the coalition. And within the Tory Party, it’s probably the Secretary of State for Education who will get the credit for that.

It’s almost like Michael Gove was planning it all along….

Nick Clegg and David Cameron on a visit to a factory in Basildon. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war