Conservative government: 100 days of solitude

17 Aug 15

After 100 days of majority government, has David Cameron’s administration set off on the right foot for the challenges ahead?

Before he departed for Cornwall on holiday last month, David Cameron spoke enthusiastically about the achievements of his government in its first 80 days. Highlighting George Osborne’s Budget as the greatest achievement so far, he noted to his government’s renewed energy. “We haven’t wasted a day”, he said.

He pointed to the focus he and his colleagues were placing on implementation and on delivering Conservative manifesto commitments. And he argued that more progress would come soon now that the Conservatives had thrown off the shackles of coalition. Government, he said, could travel more quickly because it “helps to have one hand at the steering wheel”.

Such enthusiasm is admirable. But, as we set out in our pre-election briefing note for a new administration, governing is never easy. After an initial honeymoon period, governments are ultimately judged on their ability to govern effectively over five years – not 100 days.

The question we should be asking as government reaches its 100 day milestone on 15 August is therefore not just how much Cameron has done so far, but whether he has laid the foundations for success over the course of the parliament.

In some ways, Cameron has already paved the way for a renewed focus on implementation in this parliament. He has established eleven implementation taskforces to concentrate minds on key cross-cutting objectives such as tackling extremism, and points to Cabinet Office ministers Oliver Letwin and Matt Hancock as playing important roles in helping ensure his priorities are delivered. The emphasis on the manifesto helps provide clarity too. As Cameron puts it, “People all know if they’re not sure which approach to take, it’s all in the good book, the manifesto”.

Focus is a valuable starting point. But there is a risk the government will fall into a trap we highlighted in our briefing notes: a focus on new policies may lead to neglect of existing projects and core ‘business as usual’ services that the public also care about. The government already has a portfolio of nearly 200 major projects (as defined by government), 60 percent of which government itself has judged as highly challenging and a long way from completion. Existing services meanwhile absorb the vast bulk of departmental resources.

Funding new commitments will therefore require tough decisions and even deeper cuts to existing services than would have been required anyway to reduce the deficit. George Osborne’s first budget bought departments a little more time to deliver their savings but the task is still monumental, given that departments have already found the easier-to-make savings. In other words, departments will need to focus as much – and arguably much more – on finding new ways of delivering existing services with less money as on delivering manifesto pledges for increased free childcare, a “7-day-a-week NHS”, and an ambitious net migration target.

Our briefing note also highlighted the value of stability for effective implementation, and David Cameron appears to share this view.

In addition to the same occupant of Number 10, 12 of 19 Whitehall departments are headed by the same minister as before the election. However, departments such as the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change – which were previously led by Liberal Democrats – have effectively experienced a political transition.

There has been far less stability in the junior minister ranks, with 60% of minister of state and parliamentary under-secretary posts (50 out of 84) filled by someone new following the election. Junior ministers often play an important role in providing political leadership and oversight to day to day implementation so new ministers will need to hit the ground running in order to ensure existing improvement initiatives do not stall – and the civil service will have to ensure it compensates for any political churn by ensuring the civil servants responsible for projects see them through to completion wherever possible.

The close relationship between the prime minister and George Osborne remains an essential asset for effective co-ordination across government, particularly given the advancement of many ministers close to Osborne in the last reshuffle. However effective relationships across departments can also be helped by clear decision-making processes – and decisions are often better if there is space for challenge and adaptation.

With individual ministers now freer to press ahead with departmental initiatives, the risk is that dismantling Coalition decision-making machinery will allow conflicting policies across government to proceed. There are already several examples of this. For example, the chancellor wants more housing – but the commitment in the manifesto on Housing Association Right-to-Buy is estimated to cause a significant future fall by a sector that is a major source of new supply.

There is also a risk of over-estimating the freedom of manoeuvre that a majority government provides. The government has already pulled a bill on fox-hunting and postponed its plans for English votes for English Laws to avoid defeats in the Commons, and has suffered several defeats in the Lords on its legislative plans. Government business is under new management – and the new business managers, Chris Grayling and Mark Harper may find the learning curve steeper than they initially thought.

General elections are also often followed by sudden departmental restructures, aimed either at symbolising a new way of working or managing internal party dynamics. We warned against restructures, as they are usually an unhelpful distraction unless properly planned. Cameron has avoided this pitfall so far, with the only significant change being the abolition of Nick Clegg’s redundant Deputy Prime Minister’s Office. There are some rumours of structural changes as a result of the spending review – but there is still time to ensure these are properly planned and expertise is brought in to ensure positive results.

Within departments, there is still considerable change. Most notably, the Cabinet Office has seen a marked turnover in officials who had risen to prominence under Francis Maude – and there are signs that these changes will be accompanied by significant changes in scope and remit for central functions such as the Government Digital Service. It is too early to say what is planned but there John Manzoni, the chief executive of the civil service and now also Cabinet Office permanent secretary, has suggested that he sees the role of the Cabinet Office as being to enable departments to deliver effectively rather than to do department’s work for them.

However, Manzoni will need to provide clarity on how he will delivery on his responsibilities for improving capabilities across Whitehall as soon as possible – while Maude’s successor Matt Hancock must take political responsibility for ensuring the civil service improves, even as budgets fall.

This government will not and should not be judged on the basis of its first 100 days. Events – around Europe, Scotland, and many areas as yet unknown – will provide many of the major tests, as will the government’s success in implementing reforms over the next five years. However, there are already some promising signs that Cameron has avoided some common first 100 days’ pitfalls – though by no means all of them.


This post was first published on the Institute for Government blog

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