“We couldn’t have done it without the coalition,” George Osborne told the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday. That statement of the blunt reality of British politics was received with muttering assent rather than enthusiasm, summing up the Tories’ ambivalence about their coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
At a ministerial level, relations between the two parties are pretty good. Of course, no one would pretend that Vince Cable and Eric Pickles are soulmates, but most personal frictions are subsumed within the formal framework of the coalition. New policies go through the cabinet committee system and are therefore endorsed by ministers of both parties, as both Damian Green, the police minister, and Nick Boles, the planning minister, told a fringe meeting of the Institute for Government and Policy Exchange.
So government carries on despite the defeat of AV in the referendum and the stalemate over Lords reform and boundary changes. There is no guarantee that the coalition will survive until May 2015—those overseas often collapse, as IfG research shows. But there is ministerial momentum to continue.
By contrast, party pressures move in the other direction. Nick Boles used the vivid metaphor of an imaginary Robin statue: there is a warm kiss at the top, but as you move down the body the partners grow further apart. Many Tory MPs and activists have never really accepted the coalition. They would have preferred a minority Conservative government in May 2010 followed by an autumn election which they believe—or at least hope—would have returned a majority. It’s possible, but there could easily have been another hung parliament.
More relevantly, most Tories at all levels regard the coalition as an aberration, a freak product of an electoral system designed to produce a single-party majority. The official line is that in 2015 all will return to normal, though if any party is going to get an overall majority it currently looks most likely to be Labour. But it is as likely—if not more so—that neither of the main parties will gain an overall majority. We will then require another coalition. Yet that possibility is seldom publicly conceded. The longstanding political culture of winner-takes-all majoritarianism is alive and kicking in the Tory party.
Peter Riddell is Director of the Institute for Government, which has produced several reports on the coalition