David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
Being in Government is fabulous. You get to decide what to do and then can implement those decisions, making (what you hope) is a positive difference to large numbers of people. It is what politics should be all about.
This power is not, of course, unqualified. I was fortunate to have nine years as a Minister but, throughout that period, the Governments in which I served faced significant Parliamentary constraints (in turn, a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a small majority and finally a minority Government) as well as a precarious fiscal situation, especially in the early years. We were not always able to do what we wanted.
You could have been forgiven in thinking that all this was in the past. Boris Johnson won a very comfortable majority in 2019, and he has always been clear that “austerity” was behind us. This was a “Take Back Control” Government that was going to deliver on the people’s priorities. Enough of the stalemates and gridlocks, the dither and delay. Now it was time to get things done.
What the last three weeks has shown, however, is that the limits on the powers of government have not gone away. All of a sudden, there are six instances when the constraints have become very visible.
First, the Government’s current travails began with the woeful handling of the Paterson affair, about which I wrote on this site a fortnight ago. The Parliamentary manoeuvre which it attempted – establishing a new cross-party committee – required other parties to participate.
Sensibly (and entirely predictably), the other parties refused to participate, leaving the Government with a problem. In addition, the whole proposal was so obviously objectionable that there was a sizeable Parliamentary revolt from the Conservative backbenchers, with the Government’s majority reduced to just under 20. These two Parliamentary factors meant that the Government had to abandon its approach.
Fiscal considerations have played a role in the second third cases which emerged last week. The Government’s plans for rail and, in particular, the abandonment of the eastern leg of HS2 and the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail has provoked much opposition.
As Tim Pitt, a former Treasury Special Adviser, has pointed out, capital spending for the forthcoming years is remarkably high by historic standards, but the Government still has to make choices. Ministers have reached the conclusion that there are better ways of spending this money than delivering on their promises on these two projects.
This might be a reasonable assessment (I questioned the business case for the eastern leg of HS2 when I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury), but the problem is that these promises had been made and reiterated by the Prime Minister.
The row over social care is also tricky. Even after the announcement of an increase in National Insurance Contributions (which will become the Health and Social Care Levy), there are still choices to be made, and the Government has chosen to take a tougher approach to the means test than expected.
Personally, I think the Government has got its priorities wrong on social care (I believe that we should ask more from those with large estates who face social care costs), but any government has to make choices. Again, the problem is that the new approach falls below expectations.
In both cases, the Government cannot prioritise everything (even if it has a tendency to promise everything). Tough choices have to be made.
Of growing political salience is our fourth example: migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. This is the sort of thing that was supposed to stop with Brexit, apparently (for reasons that have never been clear), and it leaves the Government unusually vulnerable to an attack from the Right.
What could be more damaging to it is the sense of powerlessness. It is not obvious that the Government knows what to do about the problem, hence we have a different story each day as to what could be done (including processing asylum applications in Albania, which came as a surprise to the Albanians).
No Government could find an easy solution to this issue. Some might try building a close and co-operative relationship with the French; this Government tries haranguing them instead. It is not clear that this is working.
Whilst we are discussing diplomacy, the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol demonstrate that this Government does not always get what it wants (even in the oven-ready deal that it put at the heart of its general election campaign and which it has ever since tried to rewrite), and this constitutes the fifth case.
By the looks of it, the Government is backing away from triggering Article 16, which is just as well. This would have resulted in a trade war which would have disproportionately damaged the UK economy and left us isolated from the EU and US. After a lot of huffing and puffing, the Government looks as if the role of the European Court of Justice is not quite so central, after all.
The sixth and final example is the non-appointment of Paul Dacre as chair of Ofcom. Having clearly encouraged him to apply, refused to accept his rejection by the interview panel but changed the remit of the role to increase the chance of him being viewed as appointable, the Government went to great lengths to get their man.
Dacre, however, has declared that he has had enough and withdrawn his application, complaining about how someone “from the private sector who, God forbid, has convictions” was never going to be accepted by the civil service “Blob”.
As it happens, the original interview panel was predominantly made up of people from the private sector. and it would be entirely reasonable if they concluded that Dacre’s strong “convictions” sat uneasily with chairing a regulator that holds the ring on broadcasters’ bias. An independent public appointments regime is a necessary check and balance and, ultimately, the system worked as it should have done.
Bring these cases together and a pattern emerges. The Government wanted to protect Owen Paterson, build the eastern leg of HS2 and the cross-Pennine rail line, ensure no one has to sell their house to pay for social care, stop migrants arriving here in small boats, remove the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, and appoint Paul Dacre as Chair of Ofcom. For one reason or another, it is not able to do any of those things.
Does this reveal that the Government is close to collapse? No, it does not. Governments do not always get their way and, as I have written elsewhere, I think the great likelihood is that Boris Johnson will lead the Conservatives into the next election (and, as it happens, I think he will probably win it).
To some extent, this is all just reality reasserting itself. Being in Government is fabulous, but it is also hard. It involves trade-offs and prioritisation and compromise. Not every problem is solvable; not every call can be answered. You do not always get your way.
The problem for the Prime Minister is that much of his considerable voter appeal has been to dismiss the pettifogging concerns of the doomsters and gloomsters. Complexity is for wimps. So-called problems are merely trivialities that can be overcome with a bit of oomph and optimism.
This certainly raises expectations. As these six recent examples demonstrate, however, it does not reflect the realities of governing. Eventually, reality – whether political, economic or diplomatic – prevails.