9 Mar 2015

Last quango in quad-land?

Ed Balls’ catchy headline about Tory cuts slashing the army to the smallest its been since Oliver Cromwell is an instructive lesson in election messaging. If you have nothing new in policy to announce, try to find a grabby way of saying something you’ve already said. Throw in some number crunching and stir into the news cycle.


As it happens, for understandable reasons, Oliver Cromwell felt he needed a rather large army. But the name and the concept engages with journalists who think they can sniff out what will engage with their readers and viewers.

Does it go anywhere? Labour hopes it eats into public unease about the Tories’ pursuit of a smaller state. But Labour wasn’t able to move the political dial much after the IFS and OBR language on the cuts implied by George Osborne’s last autumn statement.

Tonight, as I write, the quad is meeting to try to sign off on the coalition’s last budget. It could be the last quad meeting on the budget but another has been pencilled in for later in the week in case agreement can’t be found tonight.

It sounds as though the coalition has, as reported in the Sunday Times, been trying to sign off on a new hike in the personal allowance getting it close to £11,000. There have been better than expected tax receipts to help to pay for it but the last minute haggling is coming down to how you pay for the rest of the bill.

The plan is still to keep the budget “broadly fiscally neutral” so the coalition doesn’t throw away what as it sees as its reputation for fiscal credibility in a last dash for the cashpoint machine. Tonight’s quad will be seeing whether the two sides can agree on something beyond the tax avoidance measures already agreed which, presumably, don’t quite get both sides to the numbers they want.

A footnote on the quad, as it reaches what could be its last ever meeting. It was never part of the original architecture of the coalition dreamt up by Lord (Jim) Wallace and Oliver Letwin. The two men devised a “coalition committee” which would act as a star chamber court of last resort and would sort out controversial issues that defied agreement further down the political ladder.

The quad, with its extraordinary gift of veto power to Nick Clegg, seems to have evolved soon after the coalition was up and running and some think it’s all thanks to Danny Alexander arriving at the Treasury after David Laws’ departure. His bonding with George Osborne, the shared Treasury mission, the chemistry between David Cameron and Nick Clegg all made it possible and a constitutional innovation was born – in innovation Sir Nick Harvey thinks was one of the biggest early Lib Dem successes, a claim supported by the anger the quad arrangement still triggers amongst some senior Tories.

Anyway, tonight will be one of the last quads of this government … perhaps the last of its kind we’ll ever see.

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