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27 May 2015

Queen’s Speech 2015: A series of hostages to fortune

The Conservatives cannily disarmed Labour's attack lines in the election. But they may end up counting the cost in the not too distant future.

By Stephen Bush

Shortly after turning a majority of four into one of 96, Harold Wilson entertained a group of foreign dignitaries at Number 10. The conversation turned to golf. “How’s your handicap, Harold?” one diplomat asked. Quick as a flash, the Prime Minister replied: “Up from four to 96.”

David Cameron may feel as if he is in a somewhat similar position. Far from being master of all he surveys, his new, Conservative majority of 12 gives him considerably less freedom of manoeuvre than his old, Liberal-Conservative majority of 77.  As well as now having to secure concessions from his right flank, he’s committed to a manifesto with a variety of commitments that are, to put it mildly, somewhat tricky to implement.

The attempt to revive the success of Right to Buy – and with it, the Conservative advance into working-class communities that had previously been solidly Labour – is one such mess. You can have an interesting argument about the rights and wrongs of the original Right to Buy policy, but, crucially, it was the government’s property to sell off if it wanted to. Housing Associations aren’t part of the government, and it’s difficult to see how the law will be drafted without allowing private tenants to forcibly buy properties from their landlords. It will almost certainly be the subject of a legal challenge, even if makes its way through both Houses of Parliament. But before all that, Cameron has achieved the rare feat of uniting the Institute of Economic Affairs – who are, rightly, concerned about the implication for property rights – with Generation Rent – who are, equally rightly, troubled by the implication for Britain’s vanishing supply of social housing.

So the government had two options. Option one: they could quietly ditch it or kick it into the long grass, as they’ve done with the promise to repeal the Human Rights Act (there are three big legal problems: firstly, the Act is an essential part of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, secondly, the Act still has force in Scotland, thirdly, large parts of the Act have already entered common law making the whole exercise somewhat redundant). Option two: proceed full steam ahead, or at least give the appearance of doing so. They’ve gone for option two.

It’ll be a while before we can say for sure whether or not the government is actually going to pick a fight with the Opposition, its more libertarian backbenchers, the housing associations and the rest or is just waiting to let it die quietly in the Lords. It may be with one U-Turn behind them on the Human Rights Act and another on cutting the size of the Commons by 50, they simply don’t want to give the impression of being rudderless too early. (Creating 50 losers, many of them on your own side, is a recipe for chaos when you only have a majority of 12.)

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But it’s a fairly wonkish issue so whenever the government gives up on it, there are unlikely to be many headlines about it unless the Conservative administration proves so utterly wretched and incompetent that the running theme of the next five years is “Tory U-turn” is plausible but not particularly likely.

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More likely to be a problem are the Conservatives’ fiscal commitments. Many of these were attempts to defuse Labour attack lines – 30 free hours of childcare, £8bn for the NHS – that have now turned into unexploded bombs underneath the government. George Osborne now has the problem of finding money for all that, having made a virtue of removing almost all his freedom to manoeuvre.  Rises in income tax, national insurance and value added tax have all been ruled out and will be made illegal for the duration of the parliament.

This feels a lot like asking for trouble. What happens if say, Greece leaves the Euro, sparking around of contagion and another series of bail-outs? Or if the British recovery – itself a recovery marred by low productivity, relatively weak earnings growth and yet more personal debt – peters out between now and 2020? And added to that, how will the Conservatives do all that while meeting their target of closing the deficit by the end of the parliament?
That last may not be necessary. Cameron and Osborne were able to go into this election having fallen short of a deficit reduction programme they rubbished when it was brought forward by Alistair Darling, and still won a majority. It may be that they can be re-elected in 2020 even if they similarly fall short. But it may be that in not taking the opportunity to discard their more fanciful pledges during their post-re-election honeymoon,  the Conservatives find themselves in a great deal of trouble further down the line.