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Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 07.45.08James Kirkup has an unmissable story in today’s Daily Telegraph – the claim that the Prime Minister wants the next manifesto to rule out a second Coalition.  He writes:

“The Prime Minister wants to make a commitment in the Conservative Party election manifesto not to sign a second power-sharing deal with a smaller party in the event of a hung parliament next May, it is understood.

Instead, a Conservative party that won the most seats but lacked a Commons majority would attempt to rule as a minority government, a course that would almost certainly lead to its early collapse and a quick second election.

Mr Cameron’s allies believe the high-stakes promise would confront voters with a stark choice: an all-Conservative government or rule by Labour, possibly in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.”

James is the Political Editor of the Daily Telegraph and the story will be taken seriously.  Here are ten snap reactions to it.

  • The story comes from “a source close to Mr Cameron” and contains such language as “the Prime Minister wants”.  This is a signal that it carries weight.  But it may none the less not reflect the collective view of Downing Street.
  • Even if it does, that view is prone to change – either because it collapses under pressure (missile strikes on Syria, John Baron’s Queen’s Speech amendment, the Raab immigration bill amendment, etc) or because it is tactical rather than strategic (for example, consider its position on the Alternative fuer Deutschland, Conservative MEPs and the European Parliament, which I explore in today’s Guardian).
  • Having said all that, the story is a sign that both parts of the Coalition are now looking mainly to the next election rather than what they can do together; that their working relationship has therefore stalled (at best) and that the next Queen’s Speech will produce little of consequence, if anything.  This is government by suspended animation.
  • And if the story does indeed represent that collective view, the question obviously arises of why Cameron would want to rule out the second Coalition that could give him the five-year term he is very unlikely to win on his own.  The only rational answer is that he wants to contest what I will vulgarly call a s**t or bust election.
  • Such an poll would present the voters with a stark choice: Cameron, or Miliband – with or without Clegg.  Indeed, such a gambit would force Miliband to give his view about a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  If he ruled it out, that might frighten voters into the blue corner. If he didn’t, that might, too: coalition is now unpopular with them.
  • None the less, it almost certainly wouldn’t move enough to nudge Cameron over the winning line.  As James puts it, “most Conservative strategists believe the party needs more than 40 per cent of the vote to deliver a full Commons majority, an outcome many believe is extremely unlikely”.  This is a point we (and others) have made many times.
  • A hung Parliament after 2015 might produce enough Tory MPs to sustain a minority government for five years.  But a more likely consequence of a result similar to 2010’s is an election before 2020 – which, again, the Conservatives would be unlikely to win – or a Miliband-Clegg coalition.
  • Which takes us to the big question: would Britain’s interest be better served by a second Tory-LibDem coalition stretching to 2020, or by a stand-alone policy that could well put Miliband in Downing Street before that date – and which would, by the way, scupper that 2017 EU In/Out referendum?
  • Conservative MPs would doubtless greet any such Cameron manifesto commitment with relief, if not celebration.  It would also protect his back from anti-Coalition ones in the event of a hung Parliament.  But what about those more sympathetic to coalition? Would they break rank, arguing that a second one be kept in play to save Britain from Miliband?
  • Whatever happens next, James’s story casts a grim backward light on the happy hopes of “two parties working together for the common good” that inspired the rose garden politics of 2010 (see above) – and by extension, on the Liberal Democrat-championed ideas that underpinned it.  As Disraeli put it: “England does not love coalitions”.
  • It may well be the case that the last four years have “left Mr Cameron increasingly frustrated at his inability to push ahead with key Conservative policies”, as James puts it. But such a bold gamble smacks less of Cameron to me than of his closest political ally.

 

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