The Lib-Con pact is riven with deep ideological faultlinesby Andrew Adonis / May 26, 2010 / Leave a comment
The coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is not so much a programme for government as a catalogue of concessions achieved by the smaller party at the expense of the larger one. Many of them spelt out in precise detail. We learn the coalition is committed “to make the import or possession of illegal timber a criminal offence” and to promoting “wildlife corridors in order to halt the loss of habitats.” Almost every item of the Lib Dems’ proposed freedom bill is there, down to “adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.” There is even to be “further regulation of CCTV” and an undefined “mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.”
But where the Lib Dems are flying blind, the omissions are huge. There are no targets for deficit reduction beyond stating that cuts will be “significantly accelerated.” In a section on deficit reduction and economic growth the two are conflated, on the questionable premise that the first “ensures” the second. This section is far shorter than the catalogue of environmental pledges and constitutional reform. It also carries more detail on new spending pledges and tax cuts than on spending cuts or tax increases: a new “pupil premium” costing £2.5bn, for instance, funded by unspecified cuts elsewhere.
More expensive still will be commitments to increases in the personal tax allowance from April 2011, the same date that the earnings link with state pensions is to be restored. Under the cloak of austerity, the only visible form is a large chequebook of IOUs from the Lib Dem manifesto—poetic justice given that the man tasked with making cuts, David Laws, was one of the Lib Dem coalition negotiators. And in some controversial areas concessions to the Lib Dems are vague. Runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted are ruled out, but other sites in the southeast are not. There will be a “radical devolution of power” to local government, but the only commitment is for a review. Financial regulation will be reformed, but the Financial Services Authority survives.
The Lib Dems, meanwhile, have conceded to the Tories in only a few areas. Out goes an amnesty for illegal immigrants, regional immigration policies and entry into the euro. The nuclear deterrent is also secure, with the Liberal Democrats all but agreeing to replace Trident. One further concession comes on tuition fees, where the agreement keeps existing charges and is open-minded about future increases. Both will challenge the limits of even the most loyal Lib Dem MPs: their willingness to abstain in votes on both university fees and Trident will become a critical test of coalition discipline. That said, the change of heart on fees was a clever way for Nick Clegg to adopt a policy that he has long wished to embrace. And here Clegg is not alone: the Tory leadership has jettisoned policies too, including their inheritance tax cut for the wealthiest estates, and any promise to renegotiate EU treaties.
Overall, the Tories have done a less good job of getting specific commitments in areas where coalition tension is likely. Schools policy is given a mere 30 words, while the agreement says nothing about whether Tory “free schools” will be set up outside the local authority system (even when opposed by authorities themselves). This will soon be a crunch issue, given the Lib Dems are the party of local government, and have been fiercely opposed to the concept of independent state schools.
Yet if the Tories did badly on policies, the Lib Dems fare poorly on jobs. They hold none of the treasury, foreign office or home office briefs, largely because Clegg wanted to combine the non-portfolio post of deputy prime minister with responsibility for constitutional reform. They also have none of the major public services briefs, and only one department of front rank—the business department, under Vince Cable, but with banks and financial services retained at George Osborne’s treasury. Elsewhere, Chris Huhne has responsibility for energy policy but without a wider environmental remit; a curious selection, given Lib Dem opposition to nuclear power, which the Tories support. Laws is the cutter-in-chief as deputy to Osborne, and Danny Alexander takes the non-job of Scottish secretary, much to the Tories’ relief: they have only one MP north of the border and happily gave up the task of sparring with Alex Salmond’s SNP.
Overall, three severe weaknesses of the coalition are apparent from day one. First, there is a purely rhetorical commitment by the Lib Dems—the least disciplined of the major parties on spending—to swingeing public service cuts. Second, agreements to differ on vital policy areas will see the Lib Dems obliged to give tacit support to the very policies they more obviously oppose, to keep the government alive. And third, the Lib Dems have only a weak ministerial grip on the areas of government that matter, with the exception of constitutional reform.
The lack of ideological cohesion between the two parties is likely to be corrosive. The Tories are essentially a party of the small state. The Lib Dems, whose policies are mostly to the left of Labour, are not. On Europe, the Lib Dems lean in a federalist direction, the Tories the opposite. On civil liberties, once opposition-itis has worn off, the Tories will not want to be on the wrong side of public opinion on crime, while the Lib Dems never want to be on the wrong side of civil liberties pressure groups—a tension already visible in the need for a special commission to kick into the long grass Tory plans to repeal the Human Rights Act.
In wartime, the laws of party political gravity are suspended and coalitions have operated successfully. The only war aim of this coalition is its assault on the deficit. It is hard to think of a cause less likely to warm the hearts of Lib Dems during the long march of government. The Tories are equally unexcited about the constitutional agenda. At the very outset, then, the seeds of disintegration are easy to detect.
This article originally appeared alongside Robert Hazell’s feature on power sharing in the same issue of Prospect