Coalition is more radical than Thatcher government, says senior Tory minister

Francis Maude defends scope and speed of reforms with claim earlier governments have not pushed ahead vigorously enough

The coalition is trying to push through quicker and more vigorous reforms than attempted by either Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair in their first terms, Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister and senior Tory responsible for the party's transition into government, said today.

There has been criticism that David Cameron risks overloading the Whitehall machine, and storing up political trouble, by quickly pursuing radical reforms on so many fronts simultaneously.

But Maude, in a Guardian interview, said: "If you look at the last transitions of governments and the way they came in, I would say one of the things that Thatcher regretted was not pushing ahead vigorously enough, and quickly enough, in terms of reform. The big reforming Thatcher governments were not until 1983 and 1987.

"Similarly, the Blair government did not just waste its first 100 days – it wasted its first five years. By contrast we have prepared very carefully. So we are well equipped to hit the ground running"

A member of the cabinet's "star chamber" on spending, Maude defended plans for a vast efficiency drive, including redundancies in Whitehall, saying it was the best way to ultimately protect frontline public services.

He said he wanted to unleash a new wave of public sector entrepreneurs willing to take over public services as co-ops or mutuals. He also pointed to the 60,000 responses to the Treasury's call for suggestions on how to make government more efficient as proof that there is a thirst to take charge of public services.

Maude, seen as one of the first modernisers of the Tory party, positively embraced the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, saying: "For a government facing a national crisis, to be a broad-based government is a huge advantage."

He said the preparatory work he had undertaken for a majority Conservative government "had to be adapted for coalition purposes, but nonetheless we came in with a huge overlap between what we wanted to do and what the Lib Dems wanted to do. Obviously we had thought a lot more about it."

Referring to the dismissive putdown of the coalition attributed to the leading rightwing backbencher David Davis last week, Maude said: "If I look at the 'brokeback coalition' jibe there is a bit of a compliment in there – relationships are good and it is kind of working. There is a lot of trust and a lot of stuff gets sorted out because they [Cameron and Nick Clegg] talk to one another and they have a strong personal relationship."

Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, joined the call to keep up the pace of reform, saying: "The lesson you learn is that you only have limited time in government to make reform happen because after two years you often spend a lot of your time dealing with events. Time is very limited, and if you are going to make change, you have to make change early."

There has been concern in some Tory circles that the coalition, since its formation in May, has been pursuing too much radical change on too many fronts.

The issue was raised at a political cabinet earlier this month, but it is hard for Downing Street to contain cabinet ministers competing to produce radical agendas before the clouds of the autumn spending round dominate the landscape.

The former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown called on the government this week to slow the pace of reform, urging it to try pilot projects to test the ground before embarking on full-scale change.

Since the election, the government has announced plans to eradicate the structural deficit by the end of the parliament, reform welfare, put GP commissioning at the heart of NHS change, set up a wave of new academies and free schools, elect police commissioners to oversee police, impose radical reforms to the pay and conditions of public sector workers, and introduce the biggest wave of constitutional reform since the 1832 Great Reform Act, including a referendum next May on the alternative vote system.

In a sign that the government recognises that public opinion is in a fragile state, Cameron is to not planning to relax in early August, but will be undertaking two "PM directs" in the regions next week to try to reassure voters that the cuts programme is necessary and not part of an ideological drive to shrink the state.

The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, who is due to launch a "Save our NHS" campaign tomorrow, said today that the Tories were making the major strategic mistake of reforming the structures of the NHS at a time when it was facing such financial challenge. "They will live to regret this. I think within a year or so, they will have a major crisis on their hands."

He said government had no full mandate for these reforms as they had not been in the coalition document, which proposed no further significant upheaval.

Maude rejected the charge that the NHS changes could be seen as a surprise. "I think the health reforms, such as GP commissioning, were all there. People should have read the words in the manifesto."

In the BMA's fullest response to the white paper, chairman Hamish Meldrum said doctors would engage with the proposals, but warned: "Many are concerned that it will increase the role of the market in healthcare and result in the increased participation of the commercial sector."


Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

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