Now that the pageantry is out of the way we finally get to know some more details of the new coalition government’s plans. But do they live up to the headline of “freedom, fairness and responsibility”?
Tackling the budget deficit is top priority, as it has to be. But do the cuts to be introduced immediately threaten economic growth? The Lib Dems thought so during the election campaign, but now see to be signed up. Cutting £6.2bn must have an impact – among other measures the Future Jobs fund will be abolished and 10,000 university places cancelled. Bad news for young people.
A Welfare Reform Bill will create a single welfare-to-work programme and make benefit payments more conditional on willingness to accept work. This is supposed to move, “five million people languishing on welfare into work”. Quite where the five million new jobs will come from is not specified!
Tax is an area where there were clear differences between the two coalition parties, but a deal has been done. National Insurance payments will rise but changes to tax allowances mean income tax will fall. Swings and roundabouts? Most people only look at the bottom line on the payslip anyway.
And rumours of a VAT increase just won’t go away. This is a measure traditionally used by Tory governments requiring more tax revenues and I think it will happen, but not immediately.
A great deal of attention will be paid to the proposals for reforming the parliamentary system. The right to recall MPs who are found to be corrupt is welcome. But the other measures will all be controversial.
A Bill will be introduced for a referendum on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote. This is perhaps the most blatant fudge of all. The Lib Dems have agreed to a scheme that they have never supported in the past and most Tories don’t want change at all. If there is a referendum the two government partners will be campaigning on opposing sides.
Alongside this are Tory plans to reduce the number of MPs by redrawing parliamentary boundaries. This is a move that will favour only one party: the Tories. Governor Gerry would be proud.
Fixated term parliaments of five years will be introduced, removing the right of a Prime Minister to set an election date whenever he feels like it. But the new requirement for 55% of MPs to vote for a dissolution of Parliament, which I’ve written about previously, will be opposed by back benchers from all parties.
Reform of the House of Lords looks to be referred to a committee for investigation, so who knows when definite proposals will be published. In the meantime, the government is thought to be ready to create over 100 new peers to ensure it can get legislation through. Just another reason why we should have a wholly elected second house.
Perhaps the most absurdly named bill in recent times, the Freedom (Great Repeal) Bill will limit the amount of time that DNA profiles of innocent people can be held on national database and tighten regulation on the use of CCTV cameras. To be supported definitely, but hardly worth the hyperbole.
Another very welcome step is the Identity Documents Bill, which will scrap identity cards and the National Identity Register, and also cancel the next generation of biometric passports.
A Scotland Bill will grant the Scottish Parliament more powers over taxation and borrowing under proposals made by the Calman Commission, set up by Labour. Again this is to be welcomed, although First Minister Salmond isn’t overly keen. But then his party opposed Calman in the first place.
An Education Bill will allow schools in England to opt out of local authority control. It will also enable parents and other groups or companies to set up so called “free schools”. Thankfully this doesn’t apply to Scotland.
A divisive issue for the partners during the election campaign was immigration. It appears as though the Tories’ plan for a cap on non EU incomers will be introduced, although the Lib Dems’ amnesty is nowhere to be seen. A cap will affect areas such as medicine and civil engineering where there are skills shortages and could have damaging economic consequences. But the Daily Mail will be happy, of course.
The initial response to the proposals in Parliament was rather muted. For the opposition, acting Labour Leader Harriet Harman made a decent speech. She promised opposition where justified and tried to divide the two young lovers wherever possible by quoting pre-election statements, and predicting a rocky marriage for them. But while there were some clever lines, the real debates are yet to come.
So is this a radical programme for government? Well, not really. There are a few measures to be welcomed in there but nothing that fundamentally changes society.
Is it a fudge? Definitely. And perhaps inevitably given the marriage of convenience at the heart of government.
What was most notable yesterday was that government back benchers listened largely in nervous silence rather than displaying the euphoria that usually accompanies a new government. Many from both parties clearly have their reservations and the 55% issue could be the one where these come to the fore.
But will the two coalition partners stay together? Clegg and Cameron are of course very close although both will have to work to keep their parties behind the deal, which could prove difficult at times.
Division will come sooner or later. The question is when rather than if.