Have the fortunes of the Coalition Government bottomed out? Could the revamping of the health bill be the turning point?
When the legislation to radically reform the NHS came to a screeching halt (David Cameron preferred to call it “The Pause”), it was just one of a number of examples where inexperienced ministers had announced a groundbreaking piece of legislation only to have to withdraw it or make big changes later.
Who can forget the rotund scourge of local government Eric Pickles ordering councils to keep weekly bin collections? Or George Osborne putting a cap of £26,000 on benefits? Then there is the arch offender Michael Gove.
In just a year we have become used to the clipped tones of the education secretary announcing cuts in school building, sports grants and educational support, only for him to have to climb down in the face of vocal opposition and threats of court action.
Now we mustn’t be hypocritical here. Lady Thatcher was widely criticised for declaring 30 years ago that she was “not for turning”. Some admired the smack of firm government. Many more criticised her for reckless stubbornness.
Politicians who admit they’ve got it wrong can be admired for their honesty and recognising that all wisdom does not reside in Whitehall.
It’s just that a year ago hardly a day went by without the Coalition announcing a major development. The Big Society, free schools, elected police commissioners, not to mention the biggest set of spending cuts for generations. It was too much legislation too soon.
Since that first heady summer of power, the chickens have come home to roost. David Cameron suddenly realised that he could no longer be the chairman of the board using his effortless Etonian charm to keep a lofty eye on affairs of state while his Cabinet drones got on with putting the policies into law.
Prime ministers quickly find out that all the do do lands in their lap. Cameron saw the red lights flashing around the health bill and called The Pause.
Hospital consultants and GPs are past masters at getting the ear of the public when their interests are threatened. The spectre of long waiting lists, cuts in treatment and rapacious profiteers making a fortune out of granny’s hip operation was raised by the medical lobby.
The founder of the NHS, the mighty Nye Bevan, lost his battle over private beds in 1948. Andrew Lansley was easier prey.
But now the medical profession has been placated. More significantly, the Liberal Democrats can claim that the changes in the health bill that followed The Pause show the Coalition is working, with Nick Clegg protecting us from the fiendish Tories who really want to privatise the NHS.
The deputy prime minister is now going around saying “we won”. In truth he and his parliamentary colleagues voted for the health bill in its early stages. It was a grassroots revolt at the Lib Dems’ spring conference that caused The Pause.
While the Coalition might be entering calmer waters, the Labour opposition remains a prisoner of its past economic mismanagement and dysfunctional leadership. This summer has seen a further rash of revelations about the power struggle between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The leaked documents show the intolerable disloyalty shown to Tony Blair by his Chancellor. Blair should have sacked Brown in 2001 and taken the short-term flak.
As it was we had a situation where the Prime Minister was trying to get a written agreement from Brown that he would back his policies. In return Blair would map out his path to the exit door.
Intolerable – but this is not just a matter of historical interest. Ed Balls, the man we are invited to trust with the economic management of our country in the future, was right at the heart of the plotting to get Blair out.
And what was it all for? When Brown finally became Prime Minister he ignored specific warnings from officials about the mounting debt and shamelessly cancelled the scheduled Comprehensive Spending Review that would have revealed there was no money left.
The Coalition still faces great challenges as the effects of the spending cuts work through, but the outlook may be brighter if they avoid more silly mistakes.