First thought: it’s interesting that most usage of ‘the Coalition’ are now using the capital C of the proper noun for it, which implies some sort of permanence to it, perhaps. This is helped by official Government documents using the same convention, of course. The implication, though, is that Britain is being run not by two different political parties but by one homogenous organisation. Historians of the future will likely have some long-running, if essentially trivial, arguments over just what political designation to give the Government of the UK from 2010 to whenever it ends.
It seems a hell of a lot longer than last Monday that I was writing about how the best hope for the Liberal Democrats would be to find the least worst option of those being presented to us and go for that. In that vast political time of the eleven days since then, I think we’ve done that. There were three real options open to us – excluding the complete non-starter of the ‘it’s too hard, we’re going to sit on our hands and do nothing’ option – coalition with the Tories; co coalition, but a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Tories; or the supposed ‘progressive alliance’ of Labour, Lib Dems, nationalists and whoever else could be persuaded to jump on board the most rickety political bandwagon since David Owen’s Continuity SDP.
Even if the negotiations had proved fruitful, the Labour option was dead from the moment hardline backbenchers started touring the news studios saying they weren’t interested. While you can afford some dissent in a coalition that has a working majority, it’s the kiss of death to one that would only have a razor-thin one, if it even had one at all. This wouldn’t have been a Government, it would have been a political crisis waiting for the right time for it to happen and trigger a new election which would have given Cameron a majority on a 1930s scale.
And that was the same problem with confidence-and-supply – no one would want to run as a minority Government if they can find a way to avoid it, and given that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are broke after the election campaign, spending 6-to-12 months passing popular legislation (abolishing ID cards etc) and then going to the country with a ‘See? We’re nice, give us a majority’ message might not quite have brought about a Baldwinesque majority, but it’d still leave the Opposition in a pretty desperate state.
There’s also a more fundamental issue behind this – what are the Liberal Democrats for? Surely, if anything, it’s for attempting to get Liberal Democrat policies and priorities passed by the Government, and neither of those options offered much of a prospect of that happening, except for those policies where the Liberal Democrat and Conservative position overlapped. Not only that, both options appeared to present a situation where not only would there be next to no Liberal Democrat priorities delivered in this Parliament, but the likely electoral result would dramatically reduce the prospect of those policies and priorities being delivered at any time in the next few Parliaments. Thus, the choice was effectively between two options that would – or at least, were more likely to – lead to Conservative majority Governments with no Liberal Democrat input and the coalition option in which, yes, some Conservative policy would be delivered, but there’d also be a Liberal Democrat presence in there. While this wouldn’t have been the option anyone would have picked from the available smorgasbord at the start of the election campaign, it was the least worst of the options available after it.
It’s worth noting here that one of the things that made the Coalition a workable option was David Cameron’s enthusiasm for it. He wasn’t forced into talks with the Liberal Democrats, he was the one who proposed them the day after the election. Indeed, one of the things that has sold this to Liberal Democrats has been the antipathy of the Conservative right to the deal – after all, if Simon Heffer is so viscerally against something, it can’t be all bad, can it? This is where Cameron has learnt from Blair and got the opportunity to do something Blair couldn’t – by partnering with Clegg, he can pull his party towards the centre and attempt to marginalise the fringe voices on the right. It’s a risky strategy, relying on the idea that the Tory Right isn’t potentially big enough for a rebellion to wipe out the Governmental majority in the Commons, and with the recent arguments over the 1922 Committee, there’s a question of whether Cameron his pushing his party too far too fast, but I suspect there’ll be no dramatic organised move against him just yet, while he’s still enjoying his honeymoon period.
But what about the Liberal Democrats? The mood I’ve seen in the Party over the last week or so has been interesting. When the deal was first announced there was a lot of panic over the idea that we’d gone into Government with the Tories and a lot of threats of tearing up membership cards. However, as reality set in and people took another look around, a lot of those membership cards were sellotaped back together with the acceptance that this was the least worst option for us, and that now we’d taken it, we should be making it work and taking the opportunity of showing what we can do in Government. One of the reasons the Special Conference was such a success and delivered such a thumping majority for the leadership was people realising that their hopes and fears were shared by the vast majority of the party. There were no ‘Huzzah! We’re all Tories now!’ speeches or people suddenly praising the wonders of Iain Duncan Smith, but an understanding that the party had taken on a very big risk with the potential of a very big reward.
It’s still too early to tell how successful the Coalition will be – this Government is still only ten days old, after all, and yet to face any major challenges or crises – and part of me is braced for another General Election within the next twelve months if it all goes wrong. If it was to fall quickly, then normal political service could be resumed very soon, however, if it does succeed and even make it all the way to 2015, then things could look very different as a slow earthquake rumbles through our political system, changing everything.