The survival of the Lib-Con project rests as much on the practicalities of power-sharing as on policy deals. Either way, parliamentary reform will be its legacyby Robert Hazell / May 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
On his first day in office, standing alongside Nick Clegg in the garden at No 10, David Cameron proclaimed: “We are announcing a new politics… where the national interest is more important than party interest… It can be a historic and seismic shift in our political landscape.” In the press coverage that followed, many columnists focused on the ideological fit between the two men. Others admired their astute tactics, in particular how Cameron had marginalised his old guard and modernised his party overnight. Both leaders appeared to believe that they could last a full term, and change the way that Britain is run.
The public seems to agree, with a YouGov poll in mid-May showing that six in ten people support the decision to join forces. Yet now we need to take a longer view, and look at some of the pitfalls that lie ahead, especially given Westminster’s majoritarian culture and the ingrained adversarial attitudes in British politics, media and law. What lessons should Clegg and Cameron learn from the conduct of coalition governments abroad? And what are the real chances of achieving a “new politics” of co-operation, by delivering the constitutional reforms that would change the political landscape?
No one on the Conservative side was prepared for this, psychologically or practically. Many are still in denial. Cameron is blamed for not delivering an outright majority, and the old guard will continue to snipe at him, through the columns of the Tory press and websites such as ConservativeHome. Tory MPs—led by David Davis—were quick to attack the proposed 55 per cent threshold for any government resolution to dissolve parliament. If the Conservatives pull ahead in the polls and the Liberal Democrats are trailing, the temptation to cut and run may become overwhelming. The Tories are the only party that can afford a second election, having raised more funds for the last one than Labour and the Lib Dems combined. Their fundraising for the next has already started.
The Lib Dems have long dreamed of holding the balance of power, yet they, too, were unprepared. Indeed, their shock was almost as great as the Tories’, despite recent experience of coalitions in Scotland and Wales. From these the party should have learned basic coalition management: the need for mutual trust; procedures for information sharing and jointly signing-off policy; formal ways to resolve disputes, and the importance of a pool of trusted advisers to keep such disputes under control. Nonetheless, the evidence from other countries says the pressure is greater on junior partners. They risk being tarnished with unpopular decisions, even if they did not support them in private. The government’s achievements will likely be credited to Cameron; the contribution of the junior partner is less visible to voters. Within the government they will struggle to keep up, with fewer resources and ministers. The pressure on Clegg, in particular, will be intense. He will have to clear the same policy papers as Cameron, but with a fraction of the staff. He has rightly avoided the temptation to head a major department; he now must insist on his own policy unit and team of advisers, not just a small private office.