By Peter Hoskin
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You may have noticed, things aren’t exactly peachy between the two partners in the Coalition. One idea for bringing them together again — recommended in Janan Ganesh’s wonderfully readable column for the Financial Times (£) today — is the writing of another, updated, Coalition Agreement. Here are my five quick arguments in favour of that:
1) It would remind people of what has already been achieved
David Laws, one of the Coalition’s most effective marriage counsellors, has argued that a new Agreement isn’t necessary because the first one was ‘fantastically ambitious’, and that ‘focusing on those things and delivering those big things would be far more important than coming up with a lot of small, diddly additional policies that would simply distract us.’ I see his point, but it needn’t preclude another Agreement. Indeed, a new Agreement could draw attention to all the fantastic, cohesive stuff that was there from the beginning, and that is being overshadowed by the current squabbles over Lords reform and boundary changes. Schools reform, welfare reform, tax cuts for low-income earners — they should all be reaffirmed.
2) It would mark the return of government by process, not personality
Remember that story about David Cameron and Nick Clegg building flatpack furniture together? It may not have been true, but it was a great metaphor for the early days of Coalition: the government was getting on not just because of friendly relations between its two halves, but also because it was following a set of instructions. There was the Coalition Agreement itself, of course, as well as various departmental progress reports and schedules. These were designed, in part, to suck the personality out of proceedings, and give both sides a checklist to follow. So long as they could tick off the stages, then they would be making progress.
But now, of course, the mood has soured to the point where those checklists are being neglected and forgot. A new Coalition Agreement should try to rectify that, by enumerating both where the government is with its policies so far and the steps necessary to progress. In fact, David Laws described something like this in the interview that I’ve already quoted above, just not in the context of a new Agreement:
“I think what will happen later this year is that Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin are leading a process that is about reviewing the original coalition agreement to see how much we’ve achieved, how much we still need to achieve, whether there’s any changes we need to make to improve our chances of delivering the policy goals in the original coalition agreement, and that will lead to some kind of product at some stage which will be looking forward to what we need to do over the last two, two-and-a-half years of the parliament.”
3) It would fill in some of the gaps
So why am I talking about a new Coalition Agreement, when David Laws thinks that a “stock taking” document would suffice? Because, ambitious as it was, there are gaps in the existing Coalition Agreement that could do to be filled in. As Douglas Carswell says today, no-one really expected the economy to turn out this bad. If we’re to meet the challenge now, then the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats need an extended, focused discussion about just what they are prepared to do. This, as I’ve written before, must involve the topic of Europe before the two parties cross the areas of common ground mapped out recently by Dominic Raab.
Besides, some of the Coalition Agreement’s existing provisions and parameters should be made less ambiguous. There are some Lib Dems arguing this morning that the boundary changes are “clearly” linked to Lords reform, when the truth is that there is very little clarity about it at all. To avoid these tiffs in future, a new Agreement might be more explicit.
4) It could look further forward than the last
A new Coalition Agreement could unite the two parties around core principles and policies, but it could also suggest where they would differ come the next election. Take Europe, for instance. If the Liberal Democrats are dead-set against repatriating powers in this Parliament, then better that is made known now. A sub-clause could reveal that the Conservatives would make it a priority should they win a majority at the next election. This would help keep backbenchers on board for the future.
5) It could shape conference season for the better
At the moment, conference season is bearing down on the Coalition like the Headless Horseman — merciless and violent. As it stands, both sides are likely to cut chunks out of each other in a bid to redefine themselves, only to be wounded again in subsequent by-elections. But a new Coalition Agreement could protect against that unedifying spectacle. Delegations from one side might be dispatched to the other’s shindig, all for the purpose of mature debate about the Agreement’s contents.