Is Cameron’s missing majority really the root of his problem?

Over at the Telegraph today Benedict Brogan posted an interesting piece under the title David Cameron isn’t a winner – and that’s where his problems begin. The thrust of his argument is clear from the title: Cameron’s failure to secure any sort of majority last May fundamentally weakens his position. Cameron is aware of this, Brogan argues, and that awareness infuses the whole business of government.

On closer inspection the rest of the piece turns out to be a rather loose collection of observations regarding things that are going wrong or not working very well. Or, as Brogan styles it, ‘the incidences of chaos are multiplying’. Anyone keeping even half an eye on the way policy is developing would agree that incidents that could appropriately be described as chaotic are not hard to find. But has Cameron’s lack of a majority got anything to do with it?

Let’s take a couple of the examples Brogan cites.

First, there is this week’s announcement that it is apparently time for a natural pause in the passage of the NHS Reform Bill. There will now be a listening exercise. Can the appearance that the government is backpedalling be attributed to the fact that we don’t have a single party Conservative government?

We might argue that the overwhelming support at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference for the Social Liberal Forum’s amendments to the Bill has forced Liberal Democrat Ministers to go into battle with their Conservative coalition colleagues. And the Government has softened its stance as a consequence.

While that may be the case, to be satisfied with that explanation would be to ignore the fact that there is almost no one within or without the health sector who is willing to lend public support to the proposal. Quite the opposite. Even within the Conservative party Andrew Lansley looks rather isolated.

The Government has framed this whole issue in terms of a failure to explain the reforms effectively. I don’t buy that for a moment. I’m reasonably confident that most people understand the explanation. They just don’t believe it. The Conservatives promised not to mess with the NHS. Against their promise, they are doing just that. Now they promise it is not being privatised. Why should they be believed this time around? Especially when privatisation seems to be moving forward rapidly in sectors such as welfare-to-work services.

You reap what you sow.

If Nick Clegg hadn’t been standing there alongside Cameron and Lansley yesterday repeating the mantra that they were going to ‘pause, listen, reflect’ would that have made any difference? A Conservative Government may have been even bolder in its approach. The negative reaction could have been even greater.

If, belatedly, the plans for NHS reform are changed in the ways that have been suggested – and the Government has only really said they’ll “listen”, there is doubt whether they’ll act – then that would be a triumph of reason over nonsense, not a sign of weakness.

A second example Brogan refers to is the difficulty that the Government is having moving its Whitehall reform agenda forward following Cameron’s speech last month in which he described senior civil servants as the “enemies of enterprise”. The civil servants are not pursuing the agenda with as much vigour as the Government would wish them to. But has this anything to do with the absence of a Conservative majority?

It is rather more to do with utter incompetence in the management of organisational change.

You are looking to radically recast your organisation. You are expecting it to operate successfully with a third of the staff (Eric Pickles’ CLG, for example, this week announced this as their aim). To achieve this you need to create an acceptance of the urgent need for radical change among the staff. And you need to build a coalition of senior staff on your side – people who buy in to the future you are trying to create – and will work with you to deliver the change. Even then it is a major challenge because large scale organisational change is very difficult.

What you don’t do – unless you are a prize berk – is insult and alienate the very people you’re going to have to rely on to make it work. That way lies disaster. Or, indeed, chaos.

It is plausible that Cameron would have run the show differently if he’d had the majority to govern alone. I wouldn’t dispute the contention that things appear to be going wrong for the Government rather frequently at the moment. But to argue that the causation runs directly from the absence of the former to the presence of the latter seems rather questionable.

It couldn’t be that the Telegraph are in reality pushing, by slightly more subtle means than usual, the line that what we really need is another election to deliver the Conservatives a clearer mandate to govern? Then the more rabid right-wing faction could be given freer rein. Perish the thought.

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