WHAT happens when marriages of convenience become inconvenient? No, this isn’t a question about the torrid revenge saga of Chris Huhne, his lover and his ex-wife.
This is a different marital conundrum, about a relationship at the heart of British politics that’s clearly in trouble. I believe David Cameron will decide well before the end of his five-year marriage of convenience with the Lib Dems that he wants out early. No doubt he will explain himself to Nick Clegg in the time-honoured way: “It’s not you, dear – it’s me.”
Looked at from a narrow Tory point of view – go on, try it – there’s a case for arguing the coalition has served its purpose. It was necessary in 2010 to put a Conservative prime minister into Number 10, but why prolong it? There will have to be a parting of the ways – politically, at least – in the run-up to a general election. So why not short-circuit the process and go to the country earlier?
Britain is back to being a two-party state. At the 2010 general election, the Lib Dems won almost one vote in four (23 per cent). This wasn’t far behind Labour, and the election was a three-cornered fight. Now, less than two years on, that Lib Dem support has all but disappeared. In a YouGov poll this weekend, the party attracted the backing of fewer than one in ten voters (8 per cent). Left-leaning voters who were convinced by that nice man Nick Clegg have been duped. They have seen his party propping up a Tory administration with recognisably Thatcherite instincts in key areas. The clumsy brutality of the welfare cuts, the reluctance to tax the income of the rich, the isolationism in Europe, the soft-pedalling on climate change – all of these will ensure the left-leaning Lib Dem vote will not return. Why risk the chance of the party backing the Tories a second time?
We are back to a far more recognisable kind of British party politics, with Labour and the Tories fighting it out for supremacy, both currently at around 40 per cent of the vote. And here’s where the most compelling argument of all comes into play for Cameron going to the country early. Ed Miliband is plainly struggling to assert his authority as Labour leader. With every unconvincing relaunch, that authority seems to diminish rather than increase. Again the numbers are hard to argue with. Labour may be neck and neck with the Tories in the polls, but ask who would make the best prime minister and the result is very different. In a survey towards the end of last year, 54 per cent said Cameron would make the best PM compared to just 34 per cent for Miliband. In the heat of a general election campaign, when the choice is increasingly about what person – rather than what party – you want to see leading the country, it’s hard to see Miliband being anything other than a drag on Labour hopes.
From a Tory perspective, why wait for Miliband to get his act together? Why wait for a coherent Labour narrative to emerge from the contradictory signals currently being sent out by the Miliband machine? Why not wind up the coalition now and claim the prize most Tories thought would be theirs in 2010 in any case – a proper, unfiltered, unmediated Conservative government, albeit one with Cameron’s Blairite instinct to own the centre ground?
The only good argument Cameron’s advisers might have for trying to talk him out of an early election is an economic one. The very existence of the coalition government is owed to the perilous position Britain found itself in during the spring of 2010. Stability was needed, and a coalition offered that. So party political advantage was put aside – or so the spin had it – in the national interest. Why introduce a new element of instability now, putting Britain’s economic security at risk at a time when the credit ratings agencies know no fear?
The answer is simple, if brutal. The long run-up to a general election in 2015 will be a source of uncertainty anyway. Far better to have a short sharp election campaign before then, the devil on Dave’s shoulder might say, in the expectation of a majority government, just like the old days. The markets might well find that a more favourable outcome than the kind of endless campaign that seems inevitable when we know the polling day so far in advance. In any case, the economy doesn’t look like it’s going to drag itself out of the mire any time soon. Happy days are not, it seems, just around the corner. So, again, why wait?
The nature of the coalition has changed. At the start, in the sweet-smelling rose garden press conferences and with conspicuous Lib Dem input into the Budget, Cameron was falling over himself to appear accommodating. Now, all pretence of partnership has been abandoned, with Cameron’s flounce at the EU summit in December – daring to use the veto in a way that Maggie had never dared – only the most dramatic example. Vince Cable has been effectively sidelined, and the loss of Chris Huhne will make it harder for the Lib Dems to assert their presence. Cabinet will be a less fractious gathering with the emollient Ed Davey in his stead.
It is hard to see how the Lib Dems can begin to articulate a political narrative that can have any credibility at the next general election. I’ve long argued that the party went into this coalition in the wrong spirit, ignoring the example of their colleagues in the Holyrood coalitions of 1999-2007. During that time the Scottish administration spoke with one voice, but no-one was in any doubt about where the party faultlines lay, and no-one pretended that the necessary compromises were anything other than the art of the possible. In today’s UK coalition, conversely, the most enthusiastic proponent of the most pernicious Tory cuts is the Lib Dems’ Danny Alexander. This marriage of convenience has become dysfunctional. It is no longer convenient, constructive or convincing. The time has come to divvy up the Coldplay CDs and call it a day.