Clearly the Economist has retreated to its shrill (smallest possible) liberal origins.
For the time being it is awarding the ConDem coalition every possible brownie point. This is a love-match that cannot last.
Dig past the (fairly-porous) subscription wall and you will get this:
SEVERAL members of the cabinet were born great (or rather, equipped by fate and privilege to become so). A few might claim to have achieved greatness. And others have had it unexpectedly thrust upon them, in some cases because of the exigencies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. None, perhaps, bestrides government more improbably than Danny Alexander, who became chief secretary to the Treasury on May 29th, and is now responsible—with George Osborne, the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer—for righting Britain’s parlous public finances. Mr Alexander’s rise has been dramatic, but it and he are symptomatic of the coalition’s delicacy, and its challenges.
He was moved to the Treasury, following a three-week stint as Scottish secretary (a much-diminished office since devolution), after David Laws resigned. Mr Laws quit after the Daily Telegraph, in a reprise of last year’s parliamentary-expenses scandal, revealed he had claimed reimbursement for £40,000 ($58,600) in housing costs paid to a landlord who had become his romantic partner. Mr Alexander—hitherto little-known beyond Westminster, even by the standards of Lib Dem MPs—was drafted in.
Why? Well, first, because (like Mr Laws) he is a Lib Dem. When cabinet portfolios were initially apportioned, both coalition partners wanted a Lib Dem to work with Mr Osborne in the Treasury: to spread and perhaps dilute the unpopularity its policies will soon cause, hoped the Tories; and, thought the Lib Dems, to give their party a voice in the most important domestic decisions.
Mr Alexander is also the right sort of Lib Dem. There is a place in government for a few MPs from the party’s left-leaning, social-democratic wing; indeed, if Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, is to keep his party bound into the coalition, there must be such a place. But that place is not at the chief secretary’s desk in the Treasury.
In his cameo in the job, Mr Laws impressed many Tories with his fiscal rectitude and his eager adoption of their plan to begin trimming the deficit immediately (an idea the Lib Dems opposed until last month). Mr Alexander may not be quite so doctrinaire an economic liberal, say some, but, like Mr Clegg, he is intellectually closer to Mr Laws than to the soggy end of the Lib Dem spectrum. He sounds hawkish on the deficit. Moreover, he is Mr Clegg’s right-hand man: before the election he was Mr Clegg’s chief of staff and wrote their party’s manifesto; afterwards he was in the negotiations that formed and shaped the coalition, which also included Mr Osborne (Mr Alexander’s place on a large number of cabinet committees attests to his liaison role).
Loyal, ideologically sound and personable, Mr Alexander’s promotion will suit Mr Clegg and some Tories. But others are less convinced. Mr Alexander is a tender 38; before he became an MP in 2005, he worked as a press officer, largely in politics or on its fringes, but most recently at the Cairngorms National Park Authority. “Another God-damned public-relations man” was the verdict of Lord Tebbit, a Thatcherite headbanger. Mr Laws, by contrast, is a conspicuously numerate former banker.
Thus the appointment exemplifies some familiar syndromes of government: the need, sometimes, to rely on untried youth; the need to barter ministerial posts for the support of rival internal constituencies. But such considerations tend to become acute after a government has been in power for years. And, usually, the equilibrium of only one party has to be maintained. In the coalition, with its need for balance within two parties as well as between them, these problems will be perpetual and tricky.
The key point about Mr Alexander, however, is not that his background and trajectory are exceptional. It is that he is typical.
Danny Alexander—c’est moi!
The ululations that Mr Laws’s exit provoked—he has been described as an “essential” and “indispensable” part of the coalition—have in some ways been oddly overblown. After all, he was in office for less than a month. In any case, the chief secretary’s job has not generally been regarded as quite so sensitive and vital as it has been portrayed this week. The role has often been assigned to rising rather than established figures; and its occupants have not usually been expected to boast an insider’s grasp of finance. On the contrary, it has been regarded as an essentially political function, involving parlaying with other ministers and mandarins over funding—a task to which, Mr Alexander’s boosters say, his negotiating skills make him well suited.
The trouble is that these are not usual times. Mr Osborne will present an emergency budget on June 22nd, then a departmental spending review this autumn. These will inflict the most painful spending cuts in a generation. They will require an order of ministerial discipline that would be tough to achieve in any government, let alone a coalition. Mr Osborne and Mr Alexander will need to massage an electorate still mostly oblivious of what is to come, while keeping the markets happy. It is no insult to Mr Alexander to say that, for him, this looks a tall order.
Then again, it looks just as daunting for the rest of the government. It is easy to sneer at Mr Alexander’s service at Cairngorms National Parks; but he has actually had more extra-political experience than his boss, Mr Osborne, who, at 39, is only a year older. Many of their colleagues have only limited experience inside politics, let alone beyond it, having risen meteorically during the Tories’ last years of opposition.
In truth, this challenge would probably intimidate almost any Treasury team, however wily or accomplished, be they Gladstone and Disraeli or Mr Alexander and Mr Osborne. Those who say that Mr Alexander is peculiarly callow or ill-prepared are engaged in a kind of scapegoating displacement activity. No one is really ready. We are all Danny Alexander now.
Curiously enough, that is so surreal (“above reality”) Malcolm feels he cannot ridicule it any further.
It’ll be fun when the marriage begins to crack.