Big bets - a few reflections on political strategy
Eighteen months ago I was asked to give a talk on the outlook for the coalition at the Carlton Club, one of the high temples of British Conservatism.
I came across my notes this week, which provided a reminder of just how quickly political moods can change.
Then, I commended the coalition on many things: the speed with which it had agreed an ambitious programme; the smoothness with which it was handling the government machine; the ideas and values which animated the Big Society rhetoric (on which I was much less cynical than many); and the various fields in which they were pushing further with radical reforms started under the previous government, including schools and welfare.
But I suggested that the two biggest strategic choices the government had made had a high risk of misfiring. Big bets had been made that were, to say the least, courageous.
The first was reliance on deficit reduction as the cornerstone of economic policy. I said that even if the government's plans were not undermined by shrunken domestic demand leading to diminished growth and thus diminished capacity to pay off the deficit, the instabilities in the global economy made it highly likely that troubles in Europe, the US or China would derail their hopes.
The happy picture in which tough cuts at the beginning of the parliament would be rewarded with a bounce back to growth in the later years might look in the future all too much like wishful thinking dressed up as toughness.
I was even more sceptical on the public spending strategy: a parallel hope that the government could make sweeping cuts in the early years and then be rewarded with the chance to raise spending in the run up to the election.
I pointed out that the cuts would take much longer to implement and would almost certainly still be biting in the run-up to the polls.
For both of these reasons the absence of a clear growth strategy was likely to become ever more apparent, and ever more of a problem for the government.
No Plan B
It's still possible that these gambles will pay off.
But when I advise governments around the world on strategy, I always encourage them to choose strategies that are robust against multiple futures, rather than relying on only one possible picture of the future.
To have a Plan A, and no Plan B, C or D is tempting fate to say the least.
That's why I was glad to see the Select Committee on Public Administration advocate a return to strategy. Strategic thinking won't give you all the answers but it does encourage a mindset that's more likely to cope with the vagaries of the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be.