“Well this is the first coalition cabinet to meet in 65 years,” said Dave Cameron, as a steadicam swept round a crowded Cabinet table. It looked about as dignified as one of those casual get-togethers at a Chinese restaurant where everyone brings extra guests, and you’ve got your elbow in ginger beef all evening.
Which is kinda what this Con-Lib Dem coalition is all about anyway.
The first announcement of the new Cabinet was to announce that all Ministers will take another 5% pay cut, the usual bollocksy token new politics nonsense. Then it was on to business.
Actually, the main business has been the firming up of the Cabinet, and filling out the junior ministry.
Surprisingly, the Lib-Dems have taken none of the major social departments: education, health, transport and environment have all gone to Tories. The Lib-Dems have got the deputy PM slot, Chief Secretary to the Treasury (David Laws), Business Secretary (Vince Cable), Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne), and the Scotland Secretary (Danny Alexander).
Among the Conservative ranks, the Right is represented by William Hague as the foreign secretary, Iain Duncan Smith in Work and Pensions, and Eric Pickles in Local Government, where the old bruiser will be in charge of delivering the new Big Society agenda ha ha ha ha.
Michael Gove, of both right and centre, has taken education, a department whose New Labour name — Department of Schools – he has already consigned to outer darkness.
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The most interesting spin is around the new Home Secretary Theresa May, who has been got the position in place of Chris Grayling, who made an incautious remark about gay rights (to the effect that Christian Bed and Breakfast owners should be able to refuse gay couples, the sort of issue that is to Britain what, say, Bolshevism vs Tsarism was to the Russians), and could not really serve as the shopfront of a Con-LibDem alliance. May is little better when you dig through her record, but she has a more respectable facade.
The choice of ministries for the Lib-Dems is bizarre. Chief Secretary to the Treasury is the office charged with implementing future cuts, the Business Secretary has the grunt job of keeping the flywheel of the economy going round, and the Scotland Secretary is a thankless job, a pre-devolution hangover.
They’ve taken none of the ministries — Justice, Education, Health — that would really reshape the way people live, that could improve their day to day lives. There is one Lib-Dem at the second-tier ministerial level of each of these departments — Sarah Teather in education, Paul Burstow in health, Steve Webb in Work and Pensions — which will either make for productive consensus or continual trench warfare.
Possibly, the lack of cabinet positions allows them to hide from the implementation of the cuts that will now be made, but it seems an abdication of the opportunity to implement the social liberalism that is part of its mix.
Increasingly however, what is being debated is not the government’s policies, but the deal that has been done to prevent a vote of no confidence from triggering a new election. The new principle, to be legislated, is that the call for a new election will require a 55% vote in the Commons.
This figure – proposed by the Tories, accepted by the Lib Dems — is amazingly just slightly more than the combined opposition to the Tories (who have 307 seats in the 650 seat parliament), effectively sealing them from a Lib-Dem turnaround.
But of course it also creates a potential political vacuum — for what happens if there is a successful vote of no confidence, based on 50% + 1 of the parliament – but the government does not fall? The whole point of the Westminster system is that the prime minister — an advisor to the executive selected from the legislature — must have the confidence of that body.
The 55% rule means that a government could stagger on for months or years, losing vote after vote of confidence, without an election being triggered. As a piece of legislation, it is a recipe for a crisis of legitimacy.
The question as to whether the move is constitutional is tricky of course, because there is no frikkin constitution, and the move has to be compared against precedent, the Parliament act of 1911, Common Law, the assizes of the Duchy of Lancaster 1234, and Canto XXXIV of Piers Plowman.
What is currently dawning on all of us is the potentially momentous shift this has created in British politics. David Cameron knows that he will have to really deal with the Lib-Dems and not fob them off — and also fight off his old Thatcherite right.
The necessary recombination of social end economic policies – fulfilling a promise to roll back Labour’s assaults on civil liberties, for example – effectively completes a process of political modernisation which began with the transition to New Labour in 1997.
Modernisation, to a degree that transitions the UK into a smooth post-political state at that level. The Con/Lib-Dem government will be one of smooth managerialism, limited expectations, and a bit of fiddling with ‘big society’ grow-your-own-school type stuff.
The 55% deal puts the lid on that (or so they hope) — effectively, if that stays in place, a whole series of political types may as well do something else for the next four and a half years.
The mistake I guess is that, as always, we forgot to be dialectical – one should have known that, from the spark of real politics and chaos in the last five days — what would emerge was a higher synthesis of anti-politics and managerialist elite domination.
Should it hold. Cameron’s Kubla Khan banquet may prove to be the creation of a middle kingdom unchanging under the sky — or it may be a Chinese meal, the kind that makes you hungry an hour after you’ve had it.