Paul Abbott

It seems like a distant lifetime ago, a faded memory – when David Cameron made that “big, open, comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats, at a public press conference in May 2010. The turbulent half-decade of the Coalition Government already seems half forgotten, as if it is being erased quietly by “the vale of years”.

Who now remembers the nail-biting drama of Nick Clegg v Michael Gove, tussling over universal free-school meals? Or the sotto voce, flirtatious overtures that were emitted periodically from Vince Cable to the senior echelons of the Labour Party? Or the angry LibDem objections to any change in childcare ratios?

The “Quad” meetings; the policy votes at Liberal Democrat conference; the inter-departmental turf wars. It is all gone. Gone, and vanished into the mist.

The Institute for Government must have been struck by the same abrupt sense of history. And, their answer has been a splendid piece of research, looking back carefully at the basic numbers of the period 2010 – 2015. Their dossier - The Coalition in 163 charts – is worth reading carefully, and will be of interest to the Government geeks and fact-fans out there.

I won’t replicate the charts here, but some of the most interesting headlines include:

  • The deficit – the gap between Government’s revenue and its outgoings – narrowed from £135 billion to £90 billion. Given that the Coalition set out with the goal of obliterating the deficit entirely, this is actually a stark illustration of how extraordinarily difficult it was to make cuts. Reducing public spending proved really, extremely hard. The deficit numbers do look better – admittedly – when expressed as percentages of our national income, which rose too. But in cash terms the deficit proved stubbornly high.
  • Spending rose. Whatever the Leftists may claim about “austerity”, by the time of the general election the Coalition was spending £50 billion extra on public services and social security, every year.
  • Taxes went up too. Over the whole Parliament, the tax burden rose by £110 billion.
  • The Coalition was successful at streamlining Whitehall, but only slightly, and the victories were primarily in the first few years. There were 480,000 civil servants at the start; this fell to 406,000 in March 2015, a drop of 15%. But, the cuts slowed dramatically before the election, and ground to a halt. (See graph above.) New Ministers will need to drive this harder, if they want to make meaningful progress.
  • The “bonfire of the Quangos” was real, but it was a steady slow-burn, rather than a massive incendiary conflagration. The number of nondepartmental public bodies was cut from some 680+ down to 401. Non-ministerial departments and executive agencies were also slimmed down, from 83 to 62.
  • A higher proportion of women were entering the senior grades of the Civil Service, as the curtain fell on the Coalition’s tour of duty. But men were still the majority.
  • The “English Indices of Deprivation 2010″ were the most viewed dataset on I find this one statistic absolutely fascinating. The British people were hungrier for information about relative affluence and poverty, it seems, than anything else.
  • Some 18 Coalition Ministers served in the same post during the whole Coalition, including six Secretaries of State (among them Francis Maude – who became the longest-serving Minister for the Cabinet Office since the post was first created in 1997).
  • The average tenure for a Coalition Minister was shorter than two years (695 days). This was not dramatically different to the previous Labour regime (613 days).
  • Eight departments ended the Coalition with no Ministers in the same position as at the start.
  • Six departments (Scotland and Wales Offices, DfT, MoD, DCMS, Defra) had much rockier leadership churn, and cycled through three Secretaries of State in five years.
  • There were no major machinery of Government changes. Nothing. Zilch. No new departments were created, abolished or merged. A long-rumoured amalgamation of smaller departments never quite happened.
  • Only one Permanent Secretary stayed in his place for the whole Parliament – Sir Nicholas Macpherson, at the Treasury.
  • Under the Coalition, one Government bill was passed into law for every six days of the year, compared with four and a half days under Labour. The velocity of new laws was markedly slower. Good!
  • The two lengthiest, and most fiendishly complex Government bills, proved to be the Health and Social Care Act 2012 (473 pages) and the Localism Act 2011 (497 pages). The former proved to be quite controversial and opaque, despite its significant efficiency savings for the NHS.
  • Project management of the various internal reforms varied hugely between Departments. It is interesting, for example, that DCLG missed absolutely none of its project deadlines; whereas HMRC missed 80 per cent.
  • Out there in the real economy, there was an astonishing jobs miracle that flourished almost immediately under the Coalition and kept going strong right through to 2015. Despite pockets of unemployment, some 2.3 million new jobs were created in the private sector – most of them full-time and in higher skilled occupations.
  • The recovery was quite geographically balanced, too, compared with the rhetoric that Labour sometimes used to attack it. A majority of new jobs were created outside London and the South-East.
  • Violent crime fell and fell. The number of murder and manslaughter cases in England and Wales plummeted to its lowest level for 38 years. We have never lived in a safer country than we do today.
  • There was a new wave of innovative school structures set up, thanks to Michael Gove’s revolution in the DfE, and the heroic efforts of an entrepreneurial army of school-teachers. A whopping 2.2 million pupils were learning in free schools or academies by 2015. Apprenticeships soared to record levels too.
  • Hospital infections halved, and our NHS could afford to hire thousands more nurses, midwives and doctors than it could afford to in 2010.
  • The best-paid one per cent of Britons ended up paying 27 per cent of all income tax revenue, by the finale of the Coalition’s term.
  • Despite Ed Miliband’s repeated claims about “tax cuts for millionaires”, the top 0.1 per cent ended up paying 12 per cent of all income tax that was squirreled away by the Treasury. This was a record high for Great Britain. Abolishing Labour’s punitive 50p income tax seems to have led to more taxes being collected.
  • The rise in the personal allowance to £10,600 helped to protect 3.7 million Brits on the lowest incomes, and “lifted them out of income tax altogether”, to adopt the official phrasing. However, the second UK income tax (National Insurance) remained largely unreformed over the five year stretch, and despite early interest from the Treasury, was never quite merged with traditional income tax.
  • The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Britain had become a more equal society, in terms of incomes. Earlier this year, they concluded: “income inequality has fallen back to levels last seen one or two decades ago.”
  • The incomes of pensioners, however, rocketed in real terms by 10 per cent. This is largely because of an ever-more generous Basic State Pension, and more wealth-transfers from working age people. As a 29-year old, I am minded to grumble about this, but I can see the politics of it all, and there’s a fair point about pensioners on fixed incomes being whacked harder by inflation / hit by the meaner years of Gordon Brown, which needed some remedy. Que sera sera.

So, what do we learn? I would urge you to read the full document itself. The Conservative-led Coalition – whatever its myriad faults and failings – has quite a decent administrative record to show. Whatever the set-backs, Britain has ended up as a richer, greater nation, better able to pay its way in the world. Our economy is now the second largest in Europe. Schooling and healthcare are improving. Our children are safer.

It was not the Government I wanted, by the way. The Liberal Democrats made it harder to help people. They resisted faster public service reform – and never tolerated truly radical ideas, such as voucherised education or a British Bill of Human Rights. They pushed for higher taxes, when we needed lower taxes. And so on.

But, in retrospect, the most remarkable thing about the Coalition was that it survived. Five years is a long time. It is astonishing to think that UK party politics was able to sustain a LibDem Deputy Prime Minister – not just for an emergency period of a few desperate months before another election, but for a period longer than the First World War. Perhaps this was the biggest surprise of all.

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