The local and national elections are over; the EU referendum is to come. And when memories of Ruth Davidson’s and Sadiq Khan’s victories fade – and whether Britain votes to Remain or Leave – deep problems for the Conservatives and the country that are now obscured by all the campaigning will become painfully clear.
First, the Conservatives – that’s to say, the Government. When it comes to matters that don’t need a vote in Parliament, David Cameron can do almost anything he likes – because Jeremy Corbyn is running Labour (if running is quite the right term here) as a branch of the Stop the War Coalition rather than as the offical opposition.
But when it comes to any proposal that needs a vote, the Prime Minister is perilously close to having no majority at all. Tax credit change. Pensions reform. A Personal Independence Payments overhaul. All schools becoming academies. Plans for these have been dropped in the face of opposition, sometimes from the Lords but more often in the Commons. If only half a dozen or so Conservative MPs kick up, the Government must tear up its proposals. Hence the retreat last Friday, under the cover of the local elections, on the academy proposals. The Lords has been busy mashing the Housing Bill.
Next, the country. Alex Morton, who has only just left Downing Street and is writing for this site, conveyed a vivid sense in his first piece for us last Thursday of what modern government is like. No lobby group knocks at Downing Street’s door with schemes that mean spending less taxpayers’ money. All of them want more. And as he went on to point out, the Government has not – because it cannot – end the boom-to-bust cycle. The present period of growth will end sooner or later. And when it does, George Osborne will not have fixed all the holes in the roof that Gordon Brown left. The deficit last year is expected to come in at about £90 billion.
Cameron wants to fix the Government’s attention on improving life chances. This is a noble aim, and worth backing – which is why we have carried his major speeches on the subject entire on this site. But his lack of a real working majority and the knock-on effects of the EU referendum leave him poorly placed to deliver it.
Furthermore, it will be very hard for the Government to offset the spending increases which some of his plans would demand by the compensating reductions elsewhere which will be needed – given the appetite of the lobby groups, most voters and many Tory MPs, under pressure from their constituents, for more spending.
We will be taking a break for a week from writing about the EU referendum – at least first thing in the morning, in the articles we ourselves pen – to concentrate our attention on the other great issues the country faces. This doesn’t mean we won’t cover it later in the day, or that others won’t write about it: for example, Iain Duncan Smith will be doing so tomorrow for 9am.
But we want to fix our gaze on the Queen’s Speech that the country needs but – for the reasons set out above – it won’t and can’t get. (The real one will be delivered on Wednesday week.) This means looking at what can and should be done, despite the Government’s lack of a proper working majority, to deliver social justice while also reducing the deficit.
The Westminster Village is convulsed by last week’s elections and June’s referendum. We all need a dash of cold water across our collective face; to look again at the problems Britain faces. David Willetts’s excellent piece on this site today about social justice between the generations makes a start.