It\’s commonplace (and generally inaccurate) to suggest that left and right are meaningless labels, that ideological differences between Labour and Conservative have evaporated, that we are all thatcherites now. Though the Coalition has outflanked Labour in its liberalism (it would be hard to imagine how to be more authoritarian, without introducing martial law), their economic policies are pretty dry, neo-con even.
But if clear blue water is visible in terms of content, an even more dramatic difference in style is becoming visible. Today, Ken Clarke is reported as criticising his colleagues for their tendency to leave ministers hanging when their policies prove controversial. Witness Andrew Lansley\’s \’pause to listen\’; witness Caroline Spelman\’s forced retreat from privatising forests.
The Coalition lacks the discipline and control mechanism of a strong Number 10 policy unit, endlessly second-guessing ministers and re-writing their policies. Ministers are free to announce pretty well anything they like – however radical, daring or plain mad it may be – but are also free to take the blame alone if they get it wrong. In this darwinian policy competition of rugged individualism, the fittest survive and the laggards are thrown to the wolves.
By contrast, for all its embrace of market capitalism, the Labour government stayed true to its collectivist roots. Even as Tony Blair became more and more presidential, the approach was stalinist: to borrown Bagehot\’s terminology, the \’dignified\’ trappings of collective cabinet government stayed in place, while the \’efficient\’ mechanisms of sofa government dictated policy throughout Whitehall.