There are some small signs of the coalition transparency agenda stalling a bit, at least with regard to the spending review.
1) No one has settled even if they’ve settled
Cameron has laid down the law: no talking about the spending review negotiations. Even if you’ve settled, you haven’t really settled. And if your numbers leak out, expect them to change.
Even so, the negotiations are moving on at a clip. We disclosed today that five departments have basically agreed deals with the Treasury: the Foreign Office, Cabinet Office, Treasury, Environment, and Culture. Some of them have reached a “provisional settlement” — and if you’re wondering what that means, so are we. I suspect it will stay that way until they’re announced by the chancellor. It sounds like a bit of a charade.
2) Even when you reveal the budget settlement, keep the details secret
There’s growing angst in some departments over the presentation of the spending review.
Everyone is busy in No 10 attempting to find some happy reform narrative that counters the impression that the government is obsessed with cuts (which it is). Meanwhile, to the surprise of some in the Treasury, a decision has been taken not to release all the bad news in one go.
This is very odd. For various tedious legal and bureaucratic reasons, it appears all the victims of the Treasury axe may not be disclosed on October 20th. One No 10 official said the review could come down to “a couple of sides of A4″ for each department, sketching out their budget and priorities for the year. So expect numbers without the explanation — many details will be left for another day.
As a journalist, it is not too worrying. This sets a magnificent treasure trove for all of us to find out what has actually been agreed. And it will be hard for ministers to explain the absurdity of going through a six month line-by-line review of department budgets, then refusing to reveal what has been agreed.
There will I’m sure be some clarity on areas such as benefits. But if they want to stoke up public anxiety about details of programme cuts in the weeks running up to Christmas, the press will be happy to go along with it. Stretching it out will make excellent copy. Such good copy, in fact, that I expect the decision will be reversed.