Tuesday, 18 May 2010

A steep learning curve

I have to admit that I am on a steep learning curve with the Coalition Government. I have a sense of the policy ground shifting beneath my feet even in areas I am very familiar with. The final outcome is very uncertain in many cases.

Part of the problem is a lack of familiarity with the policies of the Liberal Democrats. Mea culpa, but many of us never anticipated they would be in government. I am reminded of an incident in the 2001 Parliament when I was attending a meeting at the House of Commons on higher education. A Liberal Democrat MP came and sat next to me. I knew he was and which constituency he represented. What I didn't know was that he was their spokesman on higher education which sent him into 'Do you know who I am?' mode.

In one policy area with which I am familiar, admittedly not a very high profile one, I have learnt that the Liberal Democrats have a policy which is diametrically opposite that of the Conservatives. It will be interesting to see what is said at a meeting on the subject I have to attend tomorrow.

I am not saying that it will not be possible to arrive at negotiated compromises or agreements to differ on these matters. But it is relatively uncharted territory politically and to some extent the rules of the game have to be learnt as we go along.

One area which is quite important is the role of the Treasury. I think it is no great secret that senior Treasury officials were indicating in the months before the election that they thought their department should continue to be an economics as well as a finance ministry.

George Osborne and his ultra dry Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary are clearly focused on its role as a finance ministry for understandable reasons. Quite a lot of the economic territory is being carved out by St. Vince of Cable. However, we have been here before. Challenges by the business department (in its many incarnations) have always ended up with the Treasury eventually establishing dominant control of the policy space.

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