You know a government is in trouble when the ‘week from hell’ moves beyond cliché to become the normal state of affairs. We already had a slew of pieces around the time of party conference asking if things could get any worse (I believe I even wrote one myself). And then they did.
The Mail and the Sunday Times have now joined in with what has become a national sport of Tory-baiting. The charge of incompetence is everywhere and everyone is blaming everybody else. The Mitchell affair hit at the very heart of party discipline, with the man appointed to impose it losing every scrap of authority he had before finally falling on his sword. Now the Sun (seconded by Guido) has demanded the heads of ‘No. 10 chiefs’ Craig Oliver and Andrew Cooper. But who on earth would replace them? Who would want the job?
The next few weeks will be crucial for the government, not least because we will discover whether a central element of its reforms has been working when the first full “outcomes” of the Work Programme are published. The government better have a good story here. A quick search of the Financial Times gives you the following headlines: Jobs programme ‘hangs by a thread’ (Dec 2011); Watchdog warns over Work Programme viability (Jan 2012); Doubts aired over welfare-to-work (May 2012). Then, last week, in the same newspaper came this: Coalition’s welfare-to-work scheme ‘descending into chaos’.
To be fair, the last headline was quoting Labour’s Work and Pensions shadow Liam Byrne. But the article also quoted Kirsty McHugh of the Employment Related Services Association expressing her concerns about the drop in the number of referrals to the Work Programme.
This government will be judged on its management of the country’s finances and whether it can get people back into work. The latest unemployment figures will give ministers some comfort. But there are already signs that charities and employers are losing faith in the ability of the Work Programme to deliver for the long-term unemployed. If the referrals dry up, as the prime contractors know, it simply cannot work. Several local councils are already reviving versions of Labour’s Future Jobs Fund to sidestep the Work Programme and relations between Jobcentre Plus and the private providers can be difficult.
As someone who spends part of his working life trying to get young unemployed people into jobs, I dearly hope all the nay-sayers are wrong. Either way, this will be the biggest test of the government’s competence yet.