By Paul Goodman
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LibDem bloggers Stephen Tall and Mark Pack, and Mike Smithson of Political Betting, raised some solid objections to the Coalition breaking up some six months before the 2015 general election – which I recommended on this site earlier this week. (Mike suggested that I should see "This House", the well-reviewed play about the Parliament of the mid-1970s – and a reminder of the terrible fate of governments without majorities. I replied that neither of us can expected to be around for the play about the hapless last six months of this Coalition – due, on the same timescale, in roughly 2053.) Let me deal with the two main points raised, before going on to make a new one.
- Stephen raised the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. This is indeed a major obstacle to either of the two Coalition partner breaking up the arrangement, but I wasn't arguing for an early general election – which, as he has written, is very difficult to achieve, given the act. Rather, I was suggesting that the two parties might want to move to Confidence and Supply.
- Stephen than said that LibDem members don't want to do this – and cited a Liberal Democrat Voice poll which shows that 76% of them want the Coalition to go the distance. Again, this is a strong point: for obvious reasons, I'm not an expert on the LibDems, but their MPs have to date stuck to coalition with a discipline that parts of their Conservative equivalents don't always show. However, it may be that even those who understand the LibDems far better than I don't know whether Nick Clegg will still be the party's leader come mid-2014, or whether he will have been replaced by, say, Vince Cable. That would well and truly put the cat among the Coalition pigeons, and a move to Confidence and Supply couldn't be ruled out in such circumstances. For what it's worth, my hunch is that Clegg will see the Parliament out as leader, but no-one can be sure.
- Let's presume, however, that the Liberal Democrats are indeed unwilling to move to Confidence and Supply, and will stick with coalition until the 2015 election. They will none the less continue to push their own point of view, as they did yesterday over Trident: that in itself is perfectly understandable. More novel is their view that they should have lots of latitude to vote in a different way to their majority partner – remember what happened over the Jeremy Hunt vote. It may of course be that the Conservatives behaved in the same way previously, though I'm not aware of this having happened. But whether they did or not, the Hunt vote was a reminder that the two partners don't always vote in the same lobby. All in all, David Cameron would certainly be able to break up the Coalition de facto if not de jure in September 2014. Ways can be found for the Commons could debate John Baron's referendum bill plan, Chris Grayling's proposal to curb the ECHR (which will surely be announced by then), a tighter welfare cap, and so on. Conservative Ministers might not be able to vote for all these plans, but they would be able to voice support for them from the dispatch box, while backbenchers would show their backing for them in the lobbies (quietly encouraged by the Whips). A recipe for paralysis, I hear you cry. Unlike, of course, the productive, co-operative, harmonious six months of the Coalition that will otherwise be the case.