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16 August 2015

100 days of solitude: how has the new Conservative government governed?

How have David Cameron's 100 days of majority government been?

By Jill Rutter

So what do we think of it so far?

Jill Rutter, IfG Programme Director

In the UK system, a majority (however slim) changes everything – at least for a while. So while the first thing to note about David Cameron’s government was the surprising continuity of personnel, the second is that decision-making has suddenly become much easier.

Out goes the machinery invented for coalition. That means no more Quad, coalition committee, and PM/DPM bilaterals to sort out coalition tension. The biggest policy changes can be seen in the departments where a Conservative secretary of state has replaced a Liberal Democrat, with Amber Rudd taking a hatchet to green subsidies and Sajid Javid striking a new tone on business to his predecessor. 

The deliberation and negotiation (and later recrimination and leaks) that were features of the Coalition has been replaced by pace and an emphasis on implementation. The notable new feature of the Cabinet Committee system was the creation of 12 new implementation taskforces chaired by ministers.

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But pace can also be the enemy of coherence and implementation, getting in the way of thinking through policy properly in advance.  Some of the rush of early decisions, and some of the lack of coherence between them, suggest a need to invent some grit in the oyster. 

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The Chancellor wants more housing – but the commitment in the manifesto on Housing Association Right-to-Buy is estimated to cause a significant fall in the future by a sector that is a major source of new supply

The Business Secretary wants to meet an ambitious target to boost exports, but the Home Secretary argues that the UK’s universities – a major export earner – need to learn to live with fewer overseas students as a route to hitting the government’s migration target.    

Finally, the Chancellor’s decision to raise the inheritance tax threshold on “family homes” one week, with the Health department announcing the next that the social care cost cap –affecting exactly the same group—would be postponed for four years (and maybe forever).  

This rush to action – with a blockbuster budget within weeks of the election – is reminiscent of the Labour government in 1997, in power for the first time in 18 years. Most of the government, even where secretaries of state have returned to their pre-election jobs, is behaving like they are new to power.  

They might do well to remember the words of former Chancellor Ken Clarke commenting in the Queen’s Speech debate in May 1997 on the early performance of the new Labour government: “The government have shown all the signs of inexperienced men and women who are intoxicated with their new power. They are like 18-year-olds in a saloon bar trying out every bottle on the shelf.” 

In many ways, they are behaving more like a spouse recently liberated from an unhappy marriage, determined to kick-start their new life. A clear exception is the thoughtful start Michael Gove has made at the Ministry of Justice, waiting until late July to make his first public policy foray and emphasising his desire to listen and learn – though he has been active in reassembling some of “Team Gove” from the DfE to assist him in his new department.

But 2015 is not 1997, as the next section of Clarke’s speech highlights: “The government have massive power. They have the biggest parliamentary majority since the second world war.” 

David Cameron doesn’t.  He has a wafer-thin majority with a fractious party which got used to rebellion in the last Parliament. As we have warned, governing with a small majority is not an easy task – and depends on having skilled business managers.

The government is just getting to grips with the impact of changing a majority of nearly 80 for a majority barely in double digits. Ministerial travel is curtailed. Cabinet Committees jockey for the meeting space in Parliament to ensure no one gets lost on the way to a vote. And the Government has made a number of false starts in its management of the business– not least in its mishandling of EVEL and the proposed foxhunting vote. Government business is under new management, and the new business managers, Chris Grayling and Mark Harper, may be finding the learning curve steeper than they initially thought.

So after the first 100 days, the government looks more “new” than the stability of the faces at the top would have suggested. But its big test will come when we see what a Conservative spending round really looks like, its ability to make any significant headway as Europe comes to dominate the political agenda, and its ability to manage the party in the Commons and potentially hostile House of Lords.