Lansleys’ piece of pure theatre….
Andrew Lansleys’ ‘retreat’ on NHS Reforms today is pure theatre; a show put on to bewitch and bedazzle us. You don’t have to be particularly cynical or conspiratorial in your mind-set to follow the completely logical chain of events.
It was well trailed before the Liberal Democrat conference that the leadership was going to face a bumpy-ride on this issue so we can reasonably expect that Nick Clegg and other senior Liberal Democrats will have made their Cabinet colleagues well aware of this, and, since they will obviously want to assist Clegg and Co in maintaining their position, how to deal with this will have been discussed. At this point Lansley was primed to make his ‘retreat’ carefully choreographed to coincide with the end of the Liberal Democrat conference; thus making weary activists feel like they have achieved something and spreading a warm glow inside of them. Lansley was then activated the moment the vote went through.
Sadly though he couldn’t resist adding a little flourish which makes the stage-managed nature of this production blatantly obvious – saying the Liberal Democrats have made a ‘big difference’ to his proposals. Personally, I think it’s slightly disturbing if they make a bigger difference than the likes of the British Medical Association and actual healthcare professionals who Lansley has shown his tin ear too ever since they started criticising his brand of marketised madness.
This little episode is illustrative of a pattern which those opposing the cuts have to be aware of. First, we should be aware that a percentage of the cuts the government announces are in fact measures they never intend to take and whose sole purpose is to be retracted thus making the government look like its listening. I don’t know precisely how many or which ones but the proposed forest sell-off which never came to be strikes me as a possible candidate as do others like the attempt to cut Bookstart.
In general, I would say the dummy cuts are the ones where the amounts saved are small. The government thus ostensibly stands to lose more in political capital than it stands to gain in financial capital by making them. A campaign is then given a decent run, attracts star support and some momentum, and a u-turn is duly announced. This is then filed away for a rainy day in the run-up to the next election or a period of an acute governmental crisis to be part of a ‘yes it was tough but look what we saved’ narrative.
However, this strategy is far from foolproof. In fact, in the end it could backfire rather badly because it obviously conflicts with the line that the ‘cupboard is bare’ (thus terminally undermine the public support for cuts as being ‘necessary’) and/or could build the confidence of the anti-cuts movement to the point where it wins a significant victory which turns the tide decisively and irreversibly against the government. If this happens then the Conservative right, already irked beyond belief by a government they see as weak may move to effect a quick termination. That’s the gamble. That’s the chance Cameron and Clegg are taking. Whether it will pay-off or not is very much up in the air.
Perhaps the most decisive upcoming battle will be over the Hutton Report because it is the one which is most likely to see the government directly confront the unions and also consequentially cause immense problems for Labour. Some minor concessions will be announced during the consultation and then when the unions strike the ‘we did everything we could’ meme will be spun to high-heaven.
Of course, it will be said all this is conjecture and that’s largely true. None of this can be really definitively proved. In A Very British Coup, Harry Perkins is told by his Press Secretary of the conspiracy against him of which no proof exists since ‘these people do not sit in committee planning the downfall of the elected government, there are no minutes’; the point however, is not to prove its happening at all but to ‘know it is’. Similarly here, none of this can be definitively proved but all that is required in order to beat the government at its own game.