One of the things that most frustrates Tory and Lib Dem ministers alike in the coalition is the way that policy disagreements that might be easily resolved through compromise are ramped up into tests of identity and virility on party back benches.
One often cited example is the appointment of Les Ebdon to head the Office of Fair Access, the body that is meant to guarantee that universities have as diverse an intake as possible. Most Conservatives didn’t like Ebdon, seeing him as a dangerous social engineer and (more dangerous still) the chosen candidate of Vince Cable. David Cameron was not enamoured with the idea of Ebdon getting the job.
Privately, senior Lib Dems say now they would have easily sacrificed Ebdon to get some other minor concession elsewhere – or banked the gesture of coalition goodwill to get an equivalent concession further down the line. But the scale of he anti-Vince, anti-Ebdon backlash meant Nick Clegg could not surrender without looking as if he had been bullied into it by the Tory right. So the Lib Dems stood their ground and the appointment went ahead.
Something similar is unfolding around the Beecroft report. When the report was first delivered the Lib Dems made clear they could accept bits of it but had to reject some of the more outlandish ideas. Chiefly, they oppose “no fault” dismissal at will on the grounds that it would strike fear into the hearts of employees on whose confidence consumer demand still depends. There is no evidence, the Lib Dems say, that making it easier for bosses to sack people on a whim creates new jobs.
Adrian Beecroft, the venture capitalist and Tory donor who authored the plans, blames Cable as the obstacle to their implementation and has today attacked the business secretary as a “socialist”. In fact, reservations about Beecroft go way beyond Cable’s office. When the report was first delivered, Ed Davey (now Energy Secretary) was still in the Business Department and he was as scornful of much of its content as Cable. Davey is in most respects a classic “Orange Book” liberal, respected by sensible Tories and simply incompatible in every way with the caricature of a secret Bolshevik. Likewise, Clegg’s office was happy to heap derision on Beecroft’s report as “a really shoddy piece of work” – flimsy, poorly researched.
The Lib Dems thought they had already made sufficient concessions to send the more extreme elements of Beecroft into touch earlier this year. The report is only enjoying a zombie renaissance because the Tories are feeling wounded and anxious about the economy and the atrocious public reception given to George Osborne’s Budget. In the absence of other ideas, Beecroft’s fanatical supply-side assault on “red tape” looks to many Conservatives like a decent way of re-asserting true blue control over the economic agenda.
The yellow team, meanwhile, are pretty confident that this manoeuvre won’t succeed. For a start, Team Clegg likes to point out that the last time they warned the Tories to steer clear of an idea that would reinforce the impression that they were callous cheerleaders for plutocracy it was the notion of cutting the 50p top rate of tax. Osborne ignored them; they felt vindicated by the result. No fault dismissal, they say, has the potential to be similarly toxic. As one Lib Dem in government told me recently: “Cameron and Osborne look at the scale of the problems facing the economy and they look at Beecroft and see its not the answer. They may be quite right wing, but they aren’t stupid.”