In the space of a couple of days I have heard two violently contrasting predictions of the future course and duration of the Coalition: one, from a Liberal Democrat Minister who believes the Government will last the whole term of a full Parliament; the other, from a Tory Parliamentary candidate turned Civil Service Mandarin, who reckons it will collapse in 2012.
So: sunshine or storms – which long range forecast of the political weather is likelier to be correct?
I have a lot of respect for my Lib Dem informant as a shrewd political reader of the runes based on a remarkable prophecy he made to me several months before the election. In our conversation he not only exactly accurately predicted the number of seats the Lib Dems would be left with after the election; but also foretold the coming of the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition based on what he called 'a Green agenda'. He even hazarded a guess that he would hold the Government job that he is now in fact performing. He ended this remarkable display of clairvoyance with the quote: "I did not go into politics to stay permanently in opposition". Naturally, out of politeness I forebore to ask why, in that case, he had chosen to be a Liberal Democrat, and dismissed the conversation, like Macbeth after his first encounter with the soothsaying witches, as the ravings of a deluded fantasist. But lo! All that he said has indeed come to pass.
I therefore listened to him with a great deal more attention the other day when he told me that the Coalition would go the full term, and reap the electoral rewards of a slow return to stability and prosperity after a couple of years of austerity and pain. His logic being that Labour will remain unelectable for the foreseeable future with an inept leader and an unpopular left-wing programme; and that it will be in neither the Tory nor the Lib Dem interest to bring the Coalition tumbling down prematurely.
Equally, my Tory informant also commands a respectful hearing. (A seasoned political wonk, and walking Wikipedia of statistics, trends and numbers, he is the sort of man who can tell you what Sir Alan Beith's majority was in the 2005 election without missing a beat). He believes that the fatal flaw in the Coalition that will rapidly widen into a yawning chasm will be a haemorrhage in electoral support for the Liberal Democrats. For why, he reasons, would a Liberal Democrat voter who cannot stand the Tories continue to support them now that they are in bed with the hated enemy? As a programme of savage cuts is implemented, all protest votes will naturally go to the party of the Left that is now once more in Opposition: Labour.
According to his reading of the tea leaves, this is my Tory watcher's rough timetable of how the Coalition will implode.
- Lib Dem grumbles about the cuts will grow louder as their effects become ever more apparent this autumn and winter.
- In 2011 Liberal Democrat electoral support will evaporate: council seat after council seat will fall to Labour and national Lib Dem poll figures will tank down towards single figures.
- Increasingly nervous of holding their seats, many Lib Dem councillors – and some MPs – will peel off and defect to Labour.
- Finally, in 2012, Nick Clegg, staring a revolt led by his anti-Tory and ever negative deputy Simon Hughes in the face, will either manufacture a row with the Tories and formally pull out of the Coalition; or – following the example of Joseph Chamberlain in 1886, Lloyd George in 1916, or Labour's Ramsay MacDonald in 1931 – bind himself even more tightly to the Tories and effectively merge with them. The Liberal Democrats will split. And the result of the 2012 election? (Shut your eyes if you don't want to know): Labour will win.
British political history, it must be said, tends to support my pessimistic Tory friend rather than my cheery Lib Dem one. For the lesson of Coalitons is that the smaller partner party tends to get swallowed up by the larger; and the Liberals have considerable form when it comes to divorce, with a history of splitting up that would not disgrace Liz Taylor and the late Richard Burton. In 1886, having become the natural party of Government under Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain split the Liberal party over the issue of Irish Home Rule (which he opposed) – and led a group of 'Liberal Unionists' to ally with the Tories: the Tory and Liberal Unionists remained in alliance until the Tories formally swallowed their junior partners in 1912.
In 1916 the Liberals split again, when the Liberal Lloyd George ousted his party colleague Prime Minister Herbert Asquith from No.10. The breach was only finally healed on Asquith's death in 1928, but by then Labour had replaced the Liberals as the main left-of-centre party. In 1931 the party split yet again – this time into three factions, the Liberal Nationals who supported the Tory-dominated National Government under Sir John Simon; a group who started by supporting the Government but drifted into oppostion led by Sir Herbert Samuel; and a tiny outright oppostion group still led by Lloyd George. Re-united under Sir Archibald Sinclair (grandfather of the current Lib Dem MP John Thurso) the Liberals joined Churchill's wartime coalition, but by now were so small as to be almost irrelevant. The party tottered along on the edge of extinction through the Fifties – when they famously could fit their entire Parliamentary party into a London taxi, or even, at a squeeze, into a phone kiosk – until the 1962 Orpington by-election, after which, with agonising slowness, they began to claw back votes and seats.
The most recent split came in 1988 when the party under David Steel merged with the Social Democrats under Roy Jenkins and David Owen, and the old Liberals officially became today's Liberal Democrats. Even then, however, a recalcitrant minority insisted in continuing to fight and lose elections under the Liberal Party name. Whatever else they may be, the Liberals are the gamest and most stubborn losers in British politics.
Laying our ears to the ground, we can already hear the distant rumbles of another seismic Liberal split slowly approaching. Left-wing Liberal MPs Mike Hancock and Bob Russell have already threatened to revolt and refuse to vote for the Budget, the ever-helpful Simon Hughes has threatened, like the curate's egg, to reject 'parts of it'; Tim Farron MP – who challenged Hughes for the deputy leadership and seems to be running a contest with him on who hates the Tories more – has said he finds it odd to be sitting on the same benches with people he has been fighting for twenty years; and the weekend's polls put Liberal Democrat support at a derisory 16 percent. (The stratospheric ratings of Cleggmania now seem like a lifetime ago, though it is less than two months).
And although such swallows do not necessarily mean a summer of discontent for the Coalition, we can, I think, already discern how it will all eventually end in tears. My Lib Dem Ministerial friend better not get too used to the unfamiliar comforts of his car, his office, and his civil service team – if history is any guide, he may be back in opposition sooner than he thinks.