Allan Massie: Cameron and Clegg better together – for now
DESPITE disharmony in the coalition, the Prime Minister and his deputy must grit their teeth and tough it out. Both their futures depend on it.
I think it was Disraeli who said that England does not like coalitions. Certainly the right wing of the Conservative Party loathes this one. It has resented its necessity from the start, and that resentment has festered in the two years since it was formed. Now it hopes that the Coalition will break up, though at the same time this hope is, or should be, tempered by fear. Despite the provision for fixed-term parliaments, which was part of the coalition agreement, it is still possible for parliament to be dissolved early, and a General Election held. That is a bleak prospect for both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Fall out with each other, surrender office, and see Ed Miliband in number 10. So common sense suggests that the coalition will hold together for a bit longer. The cause of the present stushie is simple. Conservative back-benchers blocked Nick Clegg’s cherished scheme for reform of the House of Lords – not, I should say, a subject that interests many outside the Westminster village. David Cameron then told his deputy that he couldn’t persuade his rebels to fall into line. Clegg accepted that for this parliament, Lords reform was dead in the water. Or perhaps not?. The Conservatives have their own pet scheme: a review of constituency boundaries and the reduction of the number of Commons seats from 650 to 600. They believe this is necessary if they are to secure an overall majority because they believe that the present set-up favours Labour. So Clegg has said: “No Lords reform, no boundaries review.”
Result: squawks of fury on the Right. Clegg is being petulant. He is behaving like a spoiled child; “it’s ma ba’ and you’re not playing with it”. It’s outrageous. Instead of swallowing the humiliation of his defeat over Lords reform, and lying on his back waiting to have his tummy scratched, he’s playing it tough. What makes it even more infuriating is that he holds the trump card that could take the trick for the Tories. So, if they are right in believing that the boundaries’ review is necessary if the Tories are going to win a majority in the next election, reason suggests that they must find some way of appeasing him.
Reason, however, is in short supply on the Tory Right. They have hated the coalition from the start and now hate Nick Clegg more than they hate Ed Miliband. They have never accepted the real nature of a coalition; that it must involve give-and-take. Moreover, they have come to hate David Cameron almost as much as they hate Clegg. They believe he has let them down. This is because they labour under a delusion: that Cameron failed to win outright in 2010 because he didn’t offer the electorate “real Tory policies” especially on immigration and the EU. Actually Cameron did well; the Tories gained 97 seats, and got two million more votes than Labour.
This success wasn’t enough for his critics. They point to the 900,000 votes that went to UKIP (though they are quiet about the half-million people who voted BNP), and argue that “real Tory policies” would see these votes return to their proper home. They don’t consider how many who did vote Conservative might not have done so if these “real Tory policies” had been on offer. Rather more than a million, I would guess.
One reason why the coalition looks shaky today is that the government is not the only coalition at Westminster. There is the other unofficial unacknowledged coalition which is called the Conservative Party. This coalition won’t break up but it is under considerable strain. The truth is that on most subjects, including the EU, David Cameron is closer to Nick Clegg than he is to the Tory Right. Cameron and Clegg want to keep the coalition together because they agree on its economic and fiscal policies – and on the importance of these policies – and because both want to build what Clegg calls “a fairer society”.
The trouble is that there is little evidence that the economic and fiscal policies are working. We are again mired in a recession, and all the “Quad” of Cameron, Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander can say is “steady as she goes”, and hope that sometime next year there is at last an economic upturn. Without that, both parties will suffer whenever the election is held.
Meanwhile, the fury on the Right gets fiercer. Tim Montgomerie, editor of the website Conservative Home, which is always described as “influential”, says: “at the earliest opportunity we must revenge Clegg’s betrayal.” So: much gnashing of teeth. But what form, apart from personal abuse, can this revenge take? Any further humiliation of the deputy prime minister risks breaking the coalition and precipitating an election. In which case, the Tories can say farewell to the possibility of a boundaries review for this parliament and the next.
Far from being petulant, Clegg has pointed a loaded gun at the Tory Right. Be careful what you wish for, he is saying; you may get it. Admittedly, calling the Right’s bluff carries dangers for Clegg himself: the opinion polls still look very bad for the Lib Dems, even if not quite as bad as they did a year ago. But then one wonders: how many Lib Dem defectors would return to the party if it was Clegg who broke the coalition and indicated that he was ready to do a deal with Labour? If he said, “we tried to make responsible coalition government work, but the Tory Right has made this impossible”?
The likelihood is that the present crisis in the coalition will be smoothed over, and compromise effected. That, after all, is how coalitions function. This is likely because it is in the interest of both David Cameron and Nick Clegg to keep the coalition in being – for a couple of years anyway. Both men’s future depends on doing so. The break-up of the coalition would undoubtedly see a challenge to Cameron’s leadership – a challenge that in the present enflamed and irrational state of his party might well be successful. Nick Clegg may be the first target of the Tory Right, but they also have their sights fixed on Cameron. The Prime Minister and his deputy must hang together, or they will be hanged separately.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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