In all events

29 Jul 11
Mike Thatcher

'Events, dear boy’ have certainly taken their toll on a coalition government that, only in its second year, appears stymied in all directions.

The fallout from the phone hacking scandal has led to resignations at the top of both News International and the Metropolitan Police. However, the implications for David Cameron’s administration should not be underestimated.

Cameron said himself, as he cut short his trip to Africa, that the British prime minister and government should be focused on boosting jobs and exports. Instead, the PM is forced to respond to every twist and turn in the saga of a media mogul humbled.

As well as reviving a flagging economy, there’s still some work to do in the public sector. But Cameron’s thoughts during the parliamentary recess are more likely to be on Murdoch than on modernising services.

And, of course, his early attempts at radical reform have not been overwhelmingly successful. U-turns on forestry sell-offs and the NHS have clearly left their mark, while another event – the collapse of Southern Cross – has hardly helped the push for greater privatisation.

The result was apparent when the government published its much-delayed Open public services white paper. At the launch, Cameron stressed that he was not ‘pulling back or losing heart for the task ahead’. Unfortunately, the content suggested otherwise.

As Colin Talbot points out in 'Open public services, closed public minds', the white paper contains only one really new idea – the creation of public service mutuals. Its core principles – choice, decentralisation, diversity of provision, fairness and accountability – could have been written by Tony Blair.

Cameron said this government wouldn’t make the mistakes of its predecessors by blocking reform and wasting time, but he has some convincing to do.

One example is the funding of adult social care. Andrew Dilnot’s recent report offered some measured and practical proposals, but this month’s cover feature by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, 'Age-old questions', suggests that these might have been kicked into the long grass.

Beleaguered Health Secretary Andrew Lansley called the report ‘immensely valuable’, but warned of ‘other funding priorities’. There won’t be a care white paper at least until the spring, with little progress expected before the next election.

By which time, no doubt, another political storm will have broken with yet more events to blow the government off course.

Mike Thatcher is the editor of Public Finance

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