Thursday, 13 May 2010

It's interesting, this coalition stuff

I can't say I had ever considered what a coalition really meant. In 1974 Ted Heath's attempts to woo Jeremy Thorpe never really got out of the closet and the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977 was not a coalition at all merely the acceptance of some Liberal policies in return for a promise not to vote the Labour government out of existence. The current coalition involves much more than just agreeing to a few tweaks of policy, senior and junior ministerial positions are held by Lib Dems and they are fully involved in deciding the detail of policy as well as its general drift.

So far the mock-chumminess has been rather nauseating but we can be sure it won't last for long. No doubt both sides think it necessary at the moment to say what super chaps they are working with after having spent the last five years denigrating them. Once people are settled into their new jobs they will just get on with it and window-dressing will not just be unnecessary it will be a distraction. Yesterday Clegg and Cameron giggled on the lawn of 10 Downing Street like a couple of school girls who had just been smiled at by the captain of the rugby team, I put that down to nerves and uncertainty, there is no reason to believe it will be repeated.

The greatest problem with a coalition is that it almost guarantees disappointment. Those who voted Conservative or Lib Dem because of a particular policy which has now been jettisoned have, in one sense, been betrayed. Their vote has been taken and used for a purpose for which it was never intended and in which the voter had no say. The same applies to those who voted for the package of measures proffered by one or other of the parties and would not have voted the same way had the compromise portfolio been offered to them. Those who will support the Conservatives or Lib Dems come what may might well feel their loyalty has been abused by a backroom deal in which the other party has got too much of its own way. Members of the Shadow Cabinet during the last Parliament will feel even greater disappointment as they see their precious jobs taken by others and the title "Right Honourable" denied them, perhaps for ever.

The formality of a full coalition gives far more to the Lib Dems than it takes from the Conservatives but the real beneficiaries are not Lib Dem backbenchers and party members but a small and select group of leading lights. They will become even more remote from their supporters than they were as the elite of a small Parliamentary party.

I can't help thinking that the continued existence of the coalition will be determined by Lib Dem figures in opinion polls. They are happy enough now, they have ministerial positions, some Conservative policies they disagree with strongly have been ditched and some of their own have been adopted. They are in government and that is a powerful drug. Unless something very odd happens it is hard to see the coalition being under threat for at least a year or two. Realistically, it can only collapse if the Lib Dems pull out and there must be little chance of that happening quickly given that they have waited decades to get any real power in national government.

Within a year or so a clear pattern will probably emerge of how power is really split between the two parties. Only the practical effects of a range of personality battles will set that pattern, but once it is set we will get a view of how the public see things and, in particular, of how the public sees the Lib Dems. It has been proclaimed that the coalition has been established to serve as government for five years. Two years in and the first whiffs of the next general election will be in the air, falling support for the Lib Dems will raise questions whether they should keep to the deal and risk a substantial fall in their vote. Substantial rising support and they might wish to cement their position by insisting on further senior government posts and a greater say on policy, which could upset the whole fruit basket.

There are all sorts of potential pitfalls of being the junior partner in a coalition that would not be encountered by a minor party giving informal support to a minority government. The latter can portray itself as an honest broker acting in the interest of stable government whereas a coalition partner is part of the government and subject to all the flak that can ensue.

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all for the Lib Dems is to keep a separate identity when all its big fish are swimming in the murky Whitehall pond. David Cameron has done something very clever already in this respect. By accompanying Vince Cable to his new offices he prevented Cable from presenting himself to "his" civil service team as the man in charge. Cameron was there to say he is in charge and he has allowed Cable his own department. His somewhat unctuous speech lauding the economic genius of Cable set a high standard for his minister to live up to. It was all there in the apparently kind and supportive act of holding his hand on the first day at Big School, - Cameron is the boss, Cable is the underling and Cable must be brilliant to justify his appointment. The man has nowhere to go but down. He has no room for carving his own empire because Cameron has made clear it is his empire not Cable's.

And what of Mrs Batty now that he is Deputy Prime Minister but has no specific ministerial portfolio? How does he mark Lib Dem territory when he cannot dissent publicly and has no department through which to do his own will? He would have done better by taking even the poisoned chalice of the Home Office alongside his position as Deputy PM, at least it would have given him something substantive to work with - as party leader he could run a department with an authority Cable does not have and cannot now try to create.

It's going to be very interesting to see what happens. I am not a betting man but if I were my money would be on ructions starting before the second anniversary as the Lib Dems find themselves marginalised in power and unable in practice to put forward an independent policy platform.


john miller said...

Cameron probably has done this to share the blame for the spending cuts and tax increases needed.

Of course, it may confirm in the public mind that NuLab are, indeed, the only party capable of running the economy.

Which would be a shame...

Mark Wadsworth said...

I don't see a problem.

I know that this will all go horribly wrong sooner or later, but surely it is better to vote Tory and get a Lib-Tory coalition than a Lib-Lab one?

Surely if you vote Lib their only serious hope of getting into power is as a junior coalition partner to one of the other two?

Surely, Labour voters marginally prefer a Lib-Tory govt to a pure Tory one?

Further, seeing as the Lib-Dems got 6.8 million votes and the Tories 10.7 million, there is not that big a difference in support for those two parties? In terms of cabinet-posts-per-MP the Lib Dems did OK; in terms of cabinet-posts-per-vote, they did very badly.

john miller said...

Umm, Mr Bigot, your views on Shitbag - oops, sorry, Mr - Byrnes jokette?

Obviously, no remark made by me can be construed as a leading question...

Anonymous said...

There will be a shitstorm when the campaigning for electoral reform gets under way. The tories will campaign against it big time and the Lib Dems will have to scrape the pennies together to promote it.

So far i think Nick Clegg has given too many soundbites about political refrom - AV is not exactly STV and the rumours about planting more tories and Lib Dem peers in the upper chamber are not good.

To sum up, not impressed yet and will be backing Ed Milliband in leadership contest. His brother's a geek.