David Blackburn

Cameron’s Eric Morecambe problem calls for the wisdom of Corporal Jones

Cameron’s Eric Morecambe problem calls for the wisdom of Corporal Jones
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It looks like the most almighty mess. The government’s communications are tongued-tied, the Big Society is flightless and the reform agenda is being neutered by inertia. The political will has been met by the administrative won’t.

But, despite the gloom, the government should pay heed to Corporal Jones: don’t panic. The slow progress of public service reform is a positive. Haunted by the memory of Blair’s paralysis, the government embarked on its programme in fevered delirium. Its ambitions were much too great. It is now time to halt and concentrate on delivering cuts. Rome was not built in a day and it certainly cost more than Britain can currently spare. Philip Collins explains (£) (in the style of David Cameron) why the government has all the right reforms, just not necessarily in the right order.

‘The Big Society, The problem here is that one of the things we believe in (localism) is clashing with another (Big Society). Everyone assumes it’s the cuts that are damaging us. But, actually, letting local authorities do what they want with the money is hurting us just as much. The council leaders’ seminar last week was a wake-up call. It’s obvious what they are up to. They will close all their non-statutory services first, which tend to come from Big Society organisations. Then all the voluntary sector services will go next. Then, and only then, will they start on the in-house services.

Here’s what we have to do, even though it offends our instincts. We need to mandate the proportion of services that local authorities have to buy from the voluntary sector. We will, in time, remove central control on how they spend their money, but slowly. We can’t cut the budget by 27 per cent and give them free rein straightaway. We’re getting smashed by it. For example, George keeps saying that we have protected the money for Sure Start but local authorities are spending that same money on whatever they want. We have to get off this hook. We need some money in the Budget and a rethink on the pace of localism.

The Eric Morecambe Problem, The Big Society is a sequencing problem. This occurred to me as I was reading Michael Barber’s book Instruction to Deliver. We are doing all the right reforms, just not necessarily in the right order. Barber’s lesson is that we were wrong to drop the targets for crime and hospitals before the reforms bite. So we’ll have to push harder from the centre in Years 1 and 2 in the hope that we can relent in Year 3. Improvement is a slow grind.

I am very concerned about crime and health, in particular. We have sent a signal to criminals, on sentencing and prison, that crime might actually pay. Police numbers don’t look good, either. Crime went down a lot under Labour and we will have an open flank there if crime goes up. The cocktail that worries me most is that the victims of crime are exactly the same people who are seeing their incomes fall in real terms. Another name for them is floating voters. This is one we have to get in front of.

On health, if waiting lists start to creep back up, we have a big problem. There is already a lot of resentment that NHS funding is protected. The results cannot get worse. I don’t need to remind you of the political capital we spent on this. I need a dedicated political adviser, drawing up Plan B.'