Michael Burgess 10.32am
So David Cameron’s closest adviser has embarked on a year-long American sabbatical. Meanwhile, the coalition is experiencing its roughest ride since the tuition fees rise, as the Health & Social Care Bill struggles its way on to the statute book.
As a backdrop, the run of opinion polls in which the Tories have enjoyed virtual parity with the Labour party at around 40 per cent appear to be ending. Some people believe now is the perfect opportunity to rein in the Conservative radicals and show the party’s ‘modernisers’ that the programme of reform is not worth the political pain it is inflicting. Will the British public tolerate tough austerity measures and sweeping reforms of beloved public services? Can that radical approach deliver the all-important Conservative majority in 2015?
These un-enlightened souls may also ask themselves: why are the Tories using up political capital on this scale of change when, after all, they are meant to be ‘conservatives’? Surely recent events have shown that it is better to adopt a ‘steady-as-she-goes’ approach for the next three years, placating the Liberal Democrats at every turn and doing their best not to upset the vested interest groups?
Now more than ever, the Government has to have the focus and determination to push through this essential programme of reform.
Tony Blair was not afraid to cast himself as a reformer, but even he only scratched away at the surface, often being held back by the trade unions, the Labour party or the media. Spin truly is not substitute for substance.
The coalition, on the other hand, has driven onwards with reforms to education, policing, healthcare, public sector pensions, university finances, welfare and local government. A valiant effort as it approaches only its second anniversary.
It is a mistake, therefore, to believe that Steve Hilton’s departure signals the beginning of the end for Conservative radicalism. He leaves behind a Tory party dominated by those of a similar reforming zeal. In Cabinet, Michael Gove, Francis Maude and Iain Duncan Smith are the current poster boys, but there are plenty of others hanging on their coat tails or blazing their own paths.
As we approach the Budget on Wednesday, all eyes are on George Osborne. He is not wanting of advice, with calls for reducing the top rate of income tax, cuts to corporation tax and raising of the personal allowance.
Post-Budget, the focus will surely switch to the Queen’s Speech. Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat colleagues will want to set out a programme of constitutional reform, presenting perhaps the biggest test to the wider Conservative party’s reforming credentials. Reform of the House of Lords is a polarising topic but the Tories should embrace it, for no true moderniser should advocate a wholly unelected second chamber.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge is for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to keep to their radical course. Strong leadership and communication of policies and ideas will be vital. Now is not the time to shy away from making and defending tough decisions for the sake of short-term politics and tomorrow’s headlines. We saw where that got the last Labour government, whose chronic infighting and a constant battle for favourable press coverage consumed their energies, leaving little space for reforms to see the light of day.
As for Steve Hilton, perhaps it was the Civil Service that did for him in the end. Or maybe he just wanted what most people would want - to spend more time with his family.
Whatever his reasons, Conservative radicalism looks set to continue unbounded. Long may that be the case.
Follow Michael on Twitter @SuperMacmillan