So now Ken Clarke’s much needed and very well thought out penal reforms are going to be watered down, the latest in a series of government moves that, whilst not really U turns, are a significant dilution of policy. So what is going on?
1) This coalition is an extremely ambitiously reforming government. They need to be to make up for the many years of maladministration under Blair and Brown and to make the country fit for purpose in the modern world. But often their ambition is just too much for the here and now.
2) Our main national problem is our immense budget deficit brought about by the inept profligacy of Brown. People often seem to forget just how bad this is. So the government is prioritising policies that fix this problem. Everything else that would be nice to do can be left for later.
3) The fundamental weakness of the coalition. Nick Clegg signed off the excellent and much needed NHS reforms, then he changed his mind because he thought (wrongly) that it would make him more unpopular. So now we are going to get a worse health service. Thank you Nick.
4) Opposition to the government is coming from strange places. For instance the NHS reforms were opposed by doctors looking after their own special interests. And most effective of all is the opposition coming from the Conservative press who seem bent on screwing this country up. Certainly no opposition is coming from the Labour party in parliament, they are incredibly ineffectual. But then their old policies are proven to be a total fail and they have no new ones.
5) A historical lesson is that the inability to be flexible on policy (especially the poll tax) finished off Margaret Thatcher. Cameron does not want to repeat this.
6) A new pragmatism. The Conservatives know they can’t get their own way over everything so they aren’t wasting their time on battles that can be left for later. Far better to spend their time and energy on things that they definitely can do.
7) Cameron is going to be Prime Minister for a long time, at least two terms. He is taking the long view. As long as he fixes the economy he can come back later and fix everything else.
So whilst it is a huge surprise to everyone too see this pragmatism after the Labour years of dogmatic centralist control over everything it is actually the sensible thing to do given our current precarious financial situation.