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Tired and brittle, this already feels like a caretaker administration

The Tories could reach the next election scarcely more advanced than Labour in the race to the win voters’ trust .

No political relaunch is ever entirely successful. As with cosmetic surgery, the surface facsimile of lost vitality indicates a deeper inadequacy. Usually it looks painful and unnatural.

So it seems when David Cameron and Nick Clegg reaffirm their commitment to power-sharing. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders held a joint press conference on 16 July to prove that they can get over their recent tiff over House of Lords reform and to remind everyone that fixing the economy remains the unifying and overarching purpose of their government. That it has to be said at all is a sign of how badly the coalition has lost focus.

The event outside Birmingham was a retread of an event on 8 May, when the Prime Minister and his deputy rededicated themselves to the cause in an Essex tractor factory. This time, as a visual aid to prompt “back on track” metaphors (and because there was an announcement about rail infrastructure spending), they stood in front of a train. The routine looks more strained every time, like the umpteenth sequel in a hackneyed Hollywood franchise – Rose Garden III: Electrification of the Cardiff Line.

One of Ed Miliband’s closest advisers talks about the “half-life” of the coalition – a reference to the pattern of decay seen in radioactive
material. The Labour leader has been working on two strategic calculations. First, Clegg and Cameron will manage to keep their partnership alive for most of a full parliamentary term. Second, the exhausting process of foisting vile compromise on reluctant MPs will age the project prematurely so it looks haggard and beaten by polling day. Both assumptions look sound.

Loveless marriage

One measure of the government’s depleted vigour is the extent to which the civil service is said to be running the show. Many Tories see the departure from Downing Street in May of Steve Hilton, Cameron’s former chief strategist, as the point at which momentum ran out. The official line is that Hilton is on a one-year sabbatical in California but the reality is that he went to war against Whitehall over drastic reforms to the way government works – and lost. “It was a defeat,” says a No 10 insider. “There’s no other way to view it.”

People inside and outside the government who used to feed policy ideas to Hilton say that they must now be routed through the office of Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood. I thought Westminster chatter about the omnipotent head of the civil service was extreme until I mentioned it to a top Treasury official and got the reply: “That stuff you hear about Heywood really running the government – all true.”

Partly the triumph of the administrative apparatus is a function of coalition. Managing relations between two parties requires more committees, minutes and memos, less stitching up deals on the sofa. That shift has empowered the Mandarinate. There was also complacency about how easy it would be to make the transition from opposition to government.

Many officials reported swaggering Tories striding into their departments in 2010 as if they owned the place (whereas Labour ministers cowered as if squatting someone else’s patch, even after a decade in power). Yet, of the many policy revolutions unleashed in the early months of the government, only Michael Gove’s proliferation of new schools and Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare changes come close to looking like political victories. Even in IDS’s department, there is mounting anxiety that the universal credit, the ambitious refit of the benefits system, will be sunk by IT problems.

The government’s biggest project is epic NHS reform, which promises to yield a steady flow of poisonous headlines about closures, cuts and chaos. That debacle has emboldened the civil service to reassert its authority over policymaking.

It is against this background that senior figures in the coalition are planning a “midterm review” in September. Once upon a time, this was envisaged as Coalition 2.0 – a snazzy upgrade to the governing blueprint agreed in 2010. That ambition was shelved last year and instead a modest audit will be conducted of what from the original plan has been achieved and what tasks remain.

If there is to be a more profound renewal of coalition vows, it will happen not this autumn but the following one, when the next round of public spending decisions is due. If the Coalition Agreement was the marriage contract, the October 2010 spending review, containing the timetable for austerity, was the consummation, locking the two partners together in irreversible fiscal intimacy.

But George Osborne’s repair job on the public finances has been bodged. Deeper cuts or new tax rises are needed but there is none of the 2010 spirit of solidarity to lubricate nego­tiations over where the axe should fall. It is one thing putting on a public show of conjugal harmony, quite another thing climbing back into a loveless bed.

Living in the interregnum

Another spending review poses multiple dangers for Labour, too. It will force Miliband to clarify what in the public sector should be preserved, what sacrificed and what reformed for the sake of long-term fiscal rectitude. Fumbling that challenge would be punished by voters as proof of unreadiness for government.

The usual attack on Labour is that the party cannot imagine governing without spending money, of which there is none spare. The same can be said of the coalition. A series of Budget U-turns, all abandoned tax rises, has left a trail of unfunded policies. The new infrastructure projects now being vaunted as part of the coalition’s grand economic plan will be underwritten by the taxpayer. This is borrowing to invest in growth (albeit with the debt hidden from the government’s balance sheet), which is what Ed Balls has long been advocating. Tory MPs fret that Labour is no longer shut out of the debate about how to rescue the economy, as it appeared to be a year ago.

On its current trajectory, the government can only look more stale and brittle. Already it feels like a caretaker administration, a quasi-civil-service technocracy holding the fort pending the outcome of ideological manoeuvring within parties and between them. The coalition is not an incumbent; it is an interregnum. That means the Tories could reach the next election scarcely more advanced than Labour in the race to the win voters’ trust and their permission to govern.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future