Cameron delays his privatisation plan again

Plans to open up all public services to private providers are put on hold.

Tony Blair famously declared: "I can only go one way, I've not got a reverse gear". But as the coalition's first year taught us, David Cameron certainly has. The backlash over the government's NHS reforms means that Cameron's entire public service reform agenda is in doubt. His radical pledge to open up almost all of the public sector - bar national defence and the judiciary - to private and voluntary providers may never be implemented.

I noted earlier this month that the government's white paper on open services, which was due to published in the spring, had been delayed in the face of opposition from the Lib Dems and scepticism from the Treasury. At the time we were assured that the white paper would finally be published in mid-July. But Francis Maude, the minister responsible for the reforms, tells today's Times (£) that the paper now won't appear until the autumn.

It's not hard to see why Cameron has retreated again. The pledge to open up the NHS to "any willing provider" proved toxic for Andrew Lansley's reforms. The pledge to do the same for the entire public sector could inflict yet more damage on the Tory brand. As my colleague Rafael Behr observed in his column recently, "One fear at No 10 is that the public hears the words "Conservative reform" and understands "mass privatisation".

The government's inertia reflects a growing division between George Osborne and Steve Hilton on the pace of reform. Hilton, Cameron's chief strategist, is determined to push ahead with the reforms to prove that the government is in control of the policy agenda ("Everything must have changed by 2015," he once remarked. "Everything"). But Osborne, who is focused on securing a Tory majority in 2015, is more cautious and is desperate to avoid another politically damaging row. In an illuminating piece on the Hilton-Osborne relationship, the Times's Sam Coates notes that senior Tories suggest there is now a "50-50 chance" of an increasingly disillusioned Hilton leaving Downing Street within the next six months.

It's unlikely that the reforms will be abandoned altogether but rather, like Lansley's NHS plans, that they will survive in a diluted form. The Lib Dems, to their credit, are determined to avoid anything that resembles privatisation. The near-collapse of Southern Cross, the company responsible for 750 care homes, was a timely reminder of the limits of the market. But Tory MPs are only likely to see this as further evidence of Cameron's diminished ambition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.