What happens now?

By Elizabeth Henshilwood, Client Director for Public Sector, Energy and Utilities

This week I spent an interesting morning over a coffee and croissant being entertained by three famous (some might say infamous) names from modern British politics; David Blunkett, former Labour Home Secretary, Michael Portillo, who served as a junior minister under both Thatcher and Major before entering the Cabinet in 1992 and Lord Ashdown (Paddy to his friends), leader of the Liberal Democrats between 1988 and 1999. The session was chaired by Huw Edwards of BBC news fame.

The topical title of the event, run by JLA Speakers to show case some of their clients, was “ What Happens Now? ” a view from the differing perspectives of the three parties, on the chance of success for the newly formed Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition government.

Mr Blunkett was the first to speak, with his trusty guide dog leading him to the podium. Apparently his two previous dogs had been sick on the carpet of the House of Commons, both occasions being when the subject under discussion was deemed particularly distasteful by Mr Blunkett. He called his dog (sorry dog, I didn’t catch your name) his “ barometer ” . Those rooting for the coalition government will be pleased to hear that said “ dog ” hasn ’ t been sick for some time now.

Along with regaling us with his canine stories, Mr Blunkett ’ s over-riding view was that the coalition government would last as the country requires security and stability. He suggested that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had come to a compromise on many of the most pressing issues and that legislation in the future regarding, for example, nuclear energy and university fees, might lead to abstinence by some Lib Dems. In these circumstances it will be interesting to see if the opposition can muster enough votes to out number the government. Blunkett finished his initial introduction with a word of caution and a nod to Labour economic policy throughout the campaign by warning the new government that public spending cuts and tax increases are inextricably linked with growth, too much of one will have an adverse affect on the other.

Michael Portillo spoke next. His view was that the coalition government came about because of the “ perilous ” economic situation that we find ourselves in. The election was held during a week when people were filmed dying on the streets of Greece and it was a fearful public that turned out to vote (or try to, in some ill-prepared constituencies). Portillo went on to make the sweeping prediction that the Euro would not survive in the long term as the Germans would eventually get tired with propping up other economies.

He described the arrangement as a “ deal ” rather than coalition and gave a couple of key reasons why he felt the coalition would be successful:

  • The government can do what it has to do, make the necessary hard decisions to be announced on the 22nd June, without them looking like “ Tory cuts ” by an incoming Tory government.
  • Nick Clegg being Deputy Prime Minister is no threat to David Cameron as a potential upstart who might at some time in the future challenge him for his position as Conservative Party leader. Clegg being from outside the Conservative Party makes Cameron ’ s position more, rather than less, secure.

Last but not least was Lord Ashdown. His opening remark was “ the nation has spoken by we are not entirely clear what it has said ” , although his summary of the situation was that the nation did not trust any one party to lead the country out of this crisis. Lord Ashdown believes that this result signals a fundamental change in politics and has altered for ever the public discourse of our nation. Although he believes that it would have been possible to make a Lib-Lab deal work, he says that a party that has been in power for a while is often “ crabby and not able to think flexibly ” and needs to take a back seat for a while to re-group.

Lord Ashdown believes that there are four key reasons why the coalition will work:

  • Cameron and Clegg get on very well on a personal level. They are both modern men who think in terms of the 21st century, they are rational and they enjoy each others company.
  • The coalition document is a remarkable document in that both sides have made compromises; particularly important to many Liberal Democrats was the commitment to by the Conservatives to civil liberties.
  • The coalition has almost unanimous support from all levels of the Lib Dems, including the Federal Executive, MPs and the Birmingham conference.
  • The general public has been educated about the severity of the crisis and are therefore willing to be patient and accept what has to be done, so long as it is deemed to be fair.

Portillo and Blunkett then imparted some words of advice for Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. Portillo advise that that the government should act quickly in order to leave the opposition behind and should try to surprise and be counter-intuitive. Blunkett had some interesting advice, particularly given the work that Crelos has been doing recently advocating the need for greater ability to constructively challenge at the top levels in organisations. He recommended that although members of the government may feel that they have to acquiesce in order to appear to get on, the government will be far more effective if they challenge and argue.

My reflection on the discussions of the morning is that I am somewhat relieved that there is a widely believed prediction of success for Cameron, Clegg and their team. A crisis requires strong leadership, clear direction and fast decision-making. The three speakers were of the opinion that the coalition could provide stronger leadership than a single party. As to clear direction, we should wait to make judgement after the Queens ’ s Speech on the 25th May and the announcement of the emergency budget on the 22nd June. The coalition government ’ s apparent support may be short lived following these. Regarding fast decision-making, this may be where the coalition falls down versus a one party approach.

There seems to be a number of reasons why the “ deal ” can be successful, including the construction of the coalition document, the personalities and styles of the two leaders, support from many levels throughout the two parties and a public who, after years of having their faith in government shattered, really want to believe that a fresh approach can steer us through these increasingly perilous times. However, a fortune teller is not required to predict that there will be some bumpy times ahead, for the British public, along with the likes of Cameron, Clegg et al.

To see a clip from the breakfast forum with Michael Portillo, David Blunkett, Paddy Ashdown and Huw Edwards please click HERE.

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Elizabeth Henshilwood Client Director for the Public Sector and Education

'The public sector is an exciting sector to work with. It brings a totally different set of challenges from the private sector. There is a lot we can do to help transfer the knowledge from private to public.'