Yesterday’s Grauniad carried an excellent illustration of the duality of the coalition. On one page, briefers for Treasury Chief Sec David Laws were quoted suggesting that among other quangos in the Department for Education, the Schools Food Trust was for the chop. On the next page, we find a story - itself clearly heavily briefed - about Zac Goldsmith MP wanting to have the public sector buy more organic food for school dinners.
A silly story, but it points up a number of key fault lines - for a start, there’s the tension between the policy aspirations of various elements of the coalition and the drive for cuts. This is especially important for the David Cameron circle among the Tory MPs, as their recently acquired taste for green and Lib-Demish politics tends to give them policy aspirations that cost money. If they can’t get anything delivered, they will tend to be overshadowed both by the Tory right and also by the Lib Dems. The government has already had to undertake nontrivial spending commitments to make the coalition work - there won’t be much space for recreational policymaking.
Another one is the fundamental nature of anything budgetary - no matter how flexible the parties can be on other issues, or how close they are on the civil liberties agenda, on economics and budgeting they are fated to be competitors rather than enemies. This is a StabPrin key analytical principle - where there is conflict, it will show up in the budgeting process, and the consequences of the budgeting process will be the most accurate index of the political situation.
This further means that the key position in the cabinet is going to be the Treasury Chief Secretary, who is responsible for the Comprehensive Spending Review, for Public Service Agreements between the Treasury and the departments, for the whole apparatus of Treasury management of the government Gordon Brown created as Chancellor, and in general for relations between the Treasury and all other agencies.
The man in question is a Liberal, David Laws MP. Interestingly, the full coalition agreement specifies that Liberals chair 5 out of 9 cabinet committees - cabinet committees are the key institution in British policymaking, absolutely critical nodes in the paper flow, so much so that Clement Attlee took the decision to build the Bomb in committee GEN163 rather than in cabinet. This was rather less so in the Blair years, but the nature of a coalition implies a more formal and discursive operational style. Taken together, these facts suggest that the Liberal position is somewhat stronger than a mere list of appointments suggests.
A critical factor is going to be how the Tories can operate in this environment.