With the dust settling on the general election, we have a result that very few foresaw, much as in 1992.
But while the Conservatives in coalition have had a clear majority over the past five years, it is now very thin and for those of us of a certain age, this will make the echoes of the Conservative victory in 1992 and the difficult parliament that followed all the more striking.
So, all of the thoughts below are caveated by the possibility that David Cameron may find himself at various points held hostage by some of his more capricious backbenchers.
With that in mind, what could this new Conservative administration mean for local government?
First, we can expect plenty of steady-as-she-goes continuation of current policies, for example more city deals and ongoing support for police and crime commissioners and local enterprise partnerships. We can also expect an expanded free schools programme; more university technical colleges; and continued encouragement for councils, along with the rest of the public sector, to mutualise services. Council tax will presumably remain unreformed and subject to referendums. The pearl-handled revolver is likely to remain in the ministerial drawer for anyone mentioning reorganisation.
As for new policies, assuming that the parliamentary arithmetic holds, then the Conservatives’ manifesto will be put through the chamber. On a positive note this will mean further integration of the health and social care system (the party is firmly committed to Simon Stevens’ NHS Five Year Forward View), more university technical colleges and further reform on business rates, with the 100% retention pilots particularly promising. More problematic for councils may be the impact that selling off expensive vacant properties has on their balance sheets. Of course, there are also likely to be more cuts to central grant.
However, the biggest story for local government in the next parliament will flow from the two topics that appear to be set to dominate politics in the near future: Europe, and Scottish home rule. The overarching theme of the next five years will be the question: who governs us? As MPs and the British public seek to answer this question, it will leave the door wide open to the talk of devolving further within England as well as federally.
Now, the party starts with a good track record on devolution and with Greater Manchester now certain to get an elected mayor in 2017, they will be breaking more new ground, but they can build on it. There is, in fact, a golden opportunity for the Conservatives to own the devolution debate and sculpt a new countrywide ‘one nation’ approach to politics and public policy, which delivers better outcomes for citizens and enhances democratic engagement.
Alex Thomson, chief executive, Localis