ILL WILL stalks the coalition. The bust up on House of Lords reform opens wide the rift that exists between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat partners in government. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has sworn revenge. His Lib-Dems will vote against Tory plans to equalise the size of House of Commons constituencies, whatever the merits of the plan. As a result of the row, both parties’ hopes of power in future parliaments are diminished. The bitterest rows are those that are self-defeating.
The sense of injustice is mainly on the Lib-Dem side. They have paid the greatest price so far for the compromises of coalition. Tuition fees, NHS reform, free schools, cuts to welfare and public sector pensions – all offend the majority of Lib Dem voters who are opportunist left-leaners. According to the polls, they have departed as a body and show no sign of returning.
Clegg resentfully asserts that David Cameron is unwilling to make matching sacrifices for the unity of the coalition. That is one reason why it is hard to see where new coalition momentum can come from. The Lib-Dems are unlikely to allow much else from the Tory wish list. But while we might sympathise somewhat with Liberal pique, you cannot credibly wield a veto without offering an alternative. The other half of the coalition’s problem is that there are no ideas on offer from Lib-Dem side. Aside from constitutional reform, the only significant policy they have contributed is raising the income tax threshold – something that the Tories would probably have done without them.
What, therefore, is the point of the coalition? With their partners in obstructionist mode, David Cameron is said to be considering the merits of minority government. Given the limited prospect either way for further meaningful legislative reform, the decision he makes will be purely political, and could be informed by the experience of Alex Salmond.
Before testing the political balance on this issue, it is worth considering the policy context a moment longer. Some commentators regard the coalition impasse as a disaster, implying that the government has run out of steam having achieved very little. I find this analysis bizarre.
Already the Cameron government has enacted vital reforms in three areas – welfare, school education and healthcare. Together these three elements of government activity account for a third of economic output. So the coalition’s reforms promise not just to transform Britain’s social outcomes but its economic productivity too. In this crucial area of public sector reform, Cameron and Clegg have already achieved more than Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown put together. On top of that, the government has reformed higher education funding, public sector pensions and the banking system. The Prime Minister tried to learn from the failures of Tony Blair’s government and get the hard stuff done early. He succeeded.
It is not just political arithmetic that demands a respite from radical legislation, therefore, but the requirements of competent government. Having fought and won its key parliamentary battles, the government needs time to bed-in, implement and administer.
But if I am a fan of the government’s policy achievements, I am not so sure about its political skills. The coalition is already acquiring a reputation for political drift. Ministers have failed to explain the ‘enact and administer’ story. The twenty-four hour news cycle leaves them scrambling to counter headlines written by someone else. Above all, in the teeth of dreadful economic news, they are perpetually invited to conjure up a ‘growth agenda’ that is politically and economically beyond their powers.
So the question remains – would ditching the Lib-Dems help the government, politically speaking? This is where the example of Alex Salmond is helpful. The SNP minority administration of 2007-2011 was politically (if not governmentally) a great success. It is difficult, looking back, to remember a single measure of any significance enacted during those years. Yet Salmond managed to exude an air of statesmanlike activity while bluffing his opponents into acquiescence. His reward was a landslide in 2011.
His main parliamentary challenges were the annual budgets. Potentially, his opponents could have used each one either to force him to accept measures antithetical to the SNP, or to overthrow him altogether. They did neither, because Salmond and Swinney presented the minor parties whose votes they needed with a dilemma: support the government or risk being held up to public disgrace for causing unnecessary political turmoil. The tail cannot wag the dog. In return each was allowed some policy titbits (regenerating towns, some extra policemen) that the SNP subsequently claimed credit for.
It helped that Salmond had a ‘foreign’ bogeyman in the form of ‘London’ as a distraction. He could rally his supporters by bashing the Union while fending of his critics by blaming Scotland’s problems on the English and its stubborn refusal to give Scotland the powers it needed.
For ‘London’ read ‘Brussels’ in a UK context. Potentially, a minority Tory government could spend its time quietly administering at home while bashing the EU abroad. The target could not be more apt, nor the timing more propitious. The EU, with its dithering response to the Euro / sovereign debt crisis, is ripe for Tory criticism. Grumpy backbenchers would be rallied once more to the Cameroon cause. Lib-Dem and Labour opponents can be painted as quislings, complicit in the EU’s hampering of Britain’s economic growth. No doubt Angela Merkel would in due course call another summit at which the Prime Minister could wield his veto. Eventually even the economy might start to behave, with no Lib-Dems to share the applause.
Such a political scenario is much easier said than done. Politics is all about playing a given situation ruthlessly to your advantage, portraying your opponents, however unfairly, as weak, out of touch and irrelevant. The Prime Minister has shown a strong appetite for reform. Now he needs to show he can master the dark arts of politics too.