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Have
you got a five-year diary to hand? And, perchance, a pen? Lovely, I thought you
would. Now please flick forward to 2017 and draw a big circle around the whole
of that year. Then add some stars, smiley faces, arrows; anything that will
help it to stand out. You see, 2017 is something of landmark year for
education. As we discovered yesterday, it will be the year when Michael Gove’s new
English Baccalaureate examinations
are first taken and marked. It will, we
hope, be a year that slams another stake into the unholy monster that is grade
inflation.

But
2017 doesn’t just… actually, wait, have you got a highlighter instead? That
might be better than a normal pen. After all, as I was saying, 2017 doesn’t
just feature landmarks in education. It is currently expected to be the year
when our structural deficit is finally whittled down to zero and turned into a fiscal
surplus. It is also expected to be the year when all working-age benefit
claimants will have moved onto Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit. We may as
well just pattern our diaries with fluorescent yellow ink now.


There
is, however, another particularly significant date in the political calendar
before then: the general election, likely to be held on 7 May 2015. So, when it
comes to these three important policy pillars of education, welfare and the
public finances (and other policy areas, too), the Coalition’s aims and
ambitions could stretch beyond its own existence. This is understandable and even admirable: the Coalition has distinguished itself by taking
on long-term problems that require long-term solutions. But, sadly, it also
throws up certain problems for Cameron & Co.

By
far most important problem is that of implementation. It might be hoped that, if
Labour win the next election, many of the Coalition’s reforms will have
progressed too far to be reversed — but, of course, that rather depends on
those reforms progressing sufficiently far in the meantime. Yet the longer it
takes to implement a policy the more opportunity there is for gremlins, all
armed with a selection of grim unknowns, to descend upon it. Those five years
could soon become six, seven, eight or never.  

We
have already witnessed this process with the public finances. It was George
Osborne’s original intention to have the deficit obliterated by the end of this
Parliament, but the absence of growth has made his best-laid plans go astray. And
what chance that the course of IDS’s Universal Credit is similarly diverted? The
good minister has recently assured us that the requisite computer system will
be delivered on time, in 2013. But, as I pointed out last year, the
history of HM Revenue and Custom’s PAYE computer system — upon which the
Universal Credit will lean — does not inspire optimism.    

Naturally,
all governments face such difficulty and delay. And the particular difficulties
and delays will vary by department, with no blanket solution for all. But there
are still ways for this government to boost its chances generally. One is to reform
that part of government which will abide whoever wins the next election — the
civil service — making them more accountable for implementing the government’s
agenda. Another is to give those same civil servants a clearer sense of the
future, in the form of a Spending Review, so that they might strive towards it.
Thanks to internal tensions over benefit cuts, the Coalition is currently
reluctant to set out its plans for after 2015, but this could be a gross folly.
Cuts can take years to filter from the Chancellor’s head to Whitehall’s balance
sheets. They ought to be being planned now, even if things change in future.

All
of which is wrapped up with another problem for Cameron & Co. — one of
message. The Coalition is entering an awkward, adolescent phase of the
Parliament, when less can be blamed on the sins of governments past, and more
emphasis must be placed on the achievements that have been sealed and the
achievements that are yet to come. In this task, they might be helped by all
these policy triumphs timed for 2017, in that they have a sunny future to point
towards. But I doubt it will be as straightforward as that. It is hard to polish
up yesterday’s announcement as tomorrow’s promise.

This
is why some government advisers are increasingly excited about the refreshed
Coalition Agreement being prepared by Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander. “It
will remind people of what we’re about,” says one, “and it should help make the
argument for where we’re going.” The thinking is that this could be where
message and implementation meet: by setting out what is yet to be done, stage
by stage, the government is not only strengthening the odds that it is done,
but also making sure that there are constantly new goals to discuss. Coalition
might become fresh again, rather than stale.

In
truth, this government has done much to ensure that its policies will persist
past its demise. There are those policies, such as spending transparency, that
will be politically impossible to
reverse. And there are those — including Mr Gove’s English Baccalaureate, which
will be taught in schools from 2015 — that will be practically impossible to reverse. But more can and will be done
to lay the ground for 2017. After all, whoever’s in power, it will not hurt the
Conservative Party to have that year’s greatest achievements regarded as the
fruits of Coalition.

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