Political Maelstrom Hits the UK; Stunned Consultants Hit the Soup Kitchens

We have just been through possibly the most amazing and disorientating month in British politics since...well, probably my lifetime. It is certainly up there with the rise and fall of Mrs. Thatcher or the chaos of the three-day week and multiple elections of 1974. The first formal coalition since the Second World War; the first Conservative / Liberal arrangement ever; and David Cameron is the youngest Prime Minster (PM) since 1812. Wow!

No single party "won" our election, so after some fascinating negotiations between the Liberal and Labour parties, the Conservatives (Tories), who had expected to win the election outright, and the Liberals got together in a coalition government. And (see my post here) the Liberals, even as the junior partner, seemed to play their negotiation cards very successfully, and gained the post of Deputy Prime Minister, several Cabinet Ministers, and a whole lot of their election pledges and policies agreed.

Now, the Liberals were seen as a "centre" party for many years. But as Labour became less "socialist" over the last few years, some Liberal policies moved into that space. In a number of areas, such as a belief in redistributive tax systems, they were to the left of Labour. So now we see the right wing Tory party -- actually a mix of views itself of course, trying to reconcile working with some pretty left wing ideas coming from their coalition partners. The parties are close in some areas, such as a belief in more individual freedom -- farewell to ID cards for instance. Other areas are not quite as comfortable; the Liberals would have had us in the Euro currency; most of the Tory party would withdraw the UK from Europe altogether given half a chance!

Then, after the election, a new political star was born. The partners do both agree on the urgency of reducing the huge UK budget deficit. And a 44 year old Liberal, David Laws, a super-smart, ex-City whizz-kid millionaire, bone-dry economically but with a real sense of social justice, was put into a senior Cabinet role, charged with making the tough budget reductions needed to ensure that Britain doesn't go the way of Greece.

For two weeks he was brilliant. The first £6 billion of spending cuts was announced, without too much complaint. He was tough, but clever and possessing obvious humanity. From nowhere, people were suddenly talking of him as a future Prime Minister. Then...he resigned last Saturday (May 29th). He had claimed expenses for living in a house owned by a friend with whom he lodged when he was in London. That was fine and within the rules. But...the friend was a bit more than a casual acquaintance; he was his (male) partner. And the expenses rules don't allow MPs to claim when living with family or partners.

Amazingly, his sexuality was not publically known, and it seems as if he got in this mess by his desire to keep it secret, particularly from his parents. No one seems to care too much, I'm pleased to say, about that angle to this; but given we have had huge scandals for the last couple of years around politicians' expenses, he had to go. It is very sad for him and the country; but he could not be the man who will have to be the axeman, who will have to sack nurses and teachers, with a £40,000 expenses scandal tag permanently around his neck -- even if the investigation to come exonerates him from official wrongdoing.

What about government procurement? Well, it looks like we will see a much stronger, more centralised approach than we have seen for many years. IT and other contracts are to be renegotiated, and I believe major contracts will need to be signed-off through a new Efficiency and Reform Group. Spend in areas such as consulting, advertising and travel is to be slashed, and yes, I do think it will actually happen. As a consultant myself, I have personal experience of being "slashed" just last week!

No one knows yet exactly what this means for government procurement staff, or organisations such as the OGC who have acted as a (pretty effective) centre of excellence in government for some years -- watch this space though, and I will keep you informed. But I do believe we are going to see dramatic developments in public procurement; and I have to say the new government appears to be attacking the deficit and public expenditure with a lot more dynamicism and urgency than I see in the US. But maybe the dollar as the "safe haven" means you don't need to bother too much!

Peter Smith

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