Bearing in mind that the mid-term review was originally conceived as means of boosting Coalition morale after the collapse of Lords reform, it hasn’t done enormously well. With two more very awkward stories stemming from the review hitting the papers today, the exercise has left Downing Street in reactive mode, rather than functioning as the proactive promoter of proalition politics. These are the main problems with the review:
1. In trying to manage headlines about the review, Downing Street inadvertently created a slew of negative coverage by withholding the ‘audit’ of coalition achievements. The audit turned out to be a very boring and badly applied gloss (Ronseal quality control would have rejected it). Had it not been withheld, then accidentally revealed by Patrick Rock, journalists would have been unlikely to feast on it. It was already clear before Nick Clegg and David Cameron even arrived at their Downing Street press conference on Monday that the review wasn’t actually going to be a warts-and-all event: no-one was expecting a lengthy exposition of George Osborne’s failure to meet his debt target, or of the collapse of House of Lords reform. So had the audit appeared alongside the equally dull main review document, its interesting take on some of these problems would have garnered it a few lines at the bottom of a story.
One of the risks, of course, with compiling an audit that was actually useful, with real gradings (like the one Jonathan painstakingly compiled for Coffee House yesterday) would have been that even if Patrick Rock hadn’t had an unfortunate mishap with a zoom lens, it would have been inevitable that the document would have been leaked to the media.
2. The new policies in the review appear incomplete. As James reported at the weekend, childcare was jewel in the crown of this week’s review for the Prime Minister and he was keen to take personal responsibility for it. And yet the announcement, timed for next week, has now been delayed because of a dispute in the Quad. It seems a little odd that a review that has been delayed from the autumn still hasn’t fleshed out – or copper-bottomed, as Downing Street prefers – the final details.
As ever, there will be a fair bit of criticism of the way the Downing Street press operation works, but one thing worth considering is that there is a physical problem in Number 10 where those working on policy sit at one end of the building and those involved in media are at the other. I understand it took one member of the press operation several months to discover where Steve Hilton actually sat after the Coalition had formed. This sort of distance does not help big policy announcements run smoothly, and it’s interesting to note that in CCHQ, Grant Shapps has specifically tried to prevent the same problem occurring by moving policy and press officers closer together.
3. (Un)friendly fire has created another negative story. This week was about the benefit of coalition, but the Mail’s report that plans to lower the age of consent were being considered as part of the new legislation protecting freedoms reeks of blue on yellow action. The paper’s source says quite specifically: ‘The Liberal Democrats are leading on this Bill and people were in shock. With everything that’s going on with Jimmy Savile, you don’t need more than two brain cells to realise how toxic this is.’ Quite.
It’s worth pointing out that the Lib Dems are insisting that they had not pushed on this idea at all, but you don’t need more than two brain cells to see how advantageous this sort of leak might be in some internal coalition conflict.
4. Ministerial resignations clouded the unity message. The most damaging was the departure of Lord Strathclyde a few hours before the Downing Street press conference to launch the review. He wasn’t just in search of an easier life after a busy job: he was fed up of the Lib Dems in the Lords, and had already remarked that in the Upper Chamber at least, Coalition wasn’t working.Tags: Coalition, David Cameron, mid-term review, Nick Clegg, UK politics