It’s always easy to issue dire prognoses about the future of the Coalition. I’ve done it myself. But the truth is often less sensational – more workaday – than the headlines would have you believe. For every spat between Michael Gove and David Laws, there are a hundred instances of cooperation between the Tories and the Lib Dems. The latest Budget proved as much. Not only was it a product of both halves of the Coalition, but it didn’t even yield the usual sniping between its authors. There was none of the look-what-we-have-blocked bravado in the approach. And little of the we-cannot-stand-for-this puffery in the aftermath. Both sides realise that disunity is not a good look.
I mention this wider context so that I don’t sound too excitable when I say: this Gove versus Laws battle is, in many respects, worse than the usual blue-on-yellow stuff. Here are some reasons why:
- The players. In Gove we have one of the most passionate and, as Miliband might put it, “intellectually self-confident” ministers in this Government. And the same can be said of some of his (former) advisers. Take Dominic Cummings, who has already stirred the pot by accusing the Lib Dems of targeting the Education Secretary. These people are stung by what Clegg & Co. have done to block their policies. Their anger is well beyond the control of Downing Street’s choreographers.
- The policy. Behind the practicalities of deficit reduction, welfare and education reform are the Tories’ flagship policies. And academies and free schools form the hull of one of those flagships. It is, in this case, free schools that are being dragged into disrepute. Will Cameron rush to defend them? Or will he cut them off, to stand by the far more numerous academies?
- The money. Perhaps the most important detail in this story is Danny Alexander’s involvement. Spending on free schools has now become, even more so than before, a matter for the Treasury. And that means that it is also a matter for the Chancellor. The loyalist in Osborne will probably want to side with his ally Gove against the predations of an opposing political party. The fiscal disciplinarian in him may shudder at the thought of a department battling over its own budget. The easiest political solution – extra money all round! – will not be easy on the deficit.
- The onlookers. And watching all this with glee are Labour. Not only does it make the Government look disharmonious, it also establishes another area of broad agreement between themselves and the Lib Dems. To wealth taxes, green targets, universal benefits and so on, you can now (more or less) add: opposition to free schools.
All of which is to say, we shouldn’t exaggerate the levels of tension within the Coalition, but this latest spat does have the potential to both linger and worsen. When the Tories and Lib Dems do look to separate, free schools could be one of the irreconcilable differences they cite.