Whether MPs across the parties like it or not, on May 7th the United Kingdom’s political and discerning electorate voted for a new type of politics – coalition politics.
Why outright victory eluded the Conservatives, the most successful political party in history, is something for Number 10, a sub-committee of the 1922 Committee, and political historians to agree and disagree about.
What is clear is that for a party which has enjoyed governing solo for over seventy years, accepting coalition life was never going to be easy. To be fair, David Cameron has never suggested anything otherwise. Addressing the parliamentary party in Committee Room 14, just hours before the final touches of the coalition agreement were being woven together, the then Leader of the Opposition eloquently and transparently underlined this point. For the parliamentary party it was unmistakeably a case of being briefed with eyes wide open – not eyes wide shut.
Moreover, as a hard-headed pragmatist, the Prime Minister is the first to admit that the country’s juxtaposed government is a marriage of raw politics and convenience rather than some political romance blossomed out of mutual desire. More Jackie Collins – than Barbara Cartland? Nick Clegg and his senior colleagues give a similarly candid assessment of the new Whitehall. Indeed, romance will probably always be lacking in this awkward coalition but that does not have to manifest itself in ways that hold back political, economic, and social advancement.
For some political purists, especially on the Right of the Conservative Party, such a naked commentary is philosophically distasteful and ideologically bereft. But those luxurious observations are notably offered up from the comfort of the now Conservative government benches – rather than the cold isolation of yet more years of opposition. It may be a classic case of being wise after the event.
The day after the general election the night before, the winds of UK politics blew differently – and they are still blowing, oftentimes unpredictably. But the coalition is here to stay – certainly for four to five years. This fact will eventually dawn on the severest of the coalition’s critics, save those for whom nothing the Prime Minister will ever do, will ever be good enough. These characters do themselves and the Prime Minister a disservice and are becoming isolated even on the Right of the Party.
The fact remains, in the two weeks following the general election, the alternatives to forming a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government were as limited as they were unappealing. A minority Conservative government, even if forming such an administration had been possible, would have lasted probably no more than twelve months. Those MPs from the ‘minority government’ school of thought also pre-suppose an improved outcome for the Conservatives at the next general election, both in terms of an increased share of vote and parliamentary seats gained. In short, they assume the Conservative Party would have emerged from a second general election with a working majority.
The reality is that with the economy still in recession, technically or in real terms, such an assumption was at the mercy of uncontrollable events and a collection of international financial imponderables. This massive assumption was political high risk and would have helpfully given the Labour Party, under Gordon Brown or any other Labour Leader, months in which to negotiate with Nick Clegg the terms of a future Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. Such an outcome could have revived Labour and locked the Conservatives out of power yet again.
Parliament’s nostalgics and revisionists also forget the economic context in which the last general election was fought: with many of those economic conditions still prevailing today, albeit to a lesser extent thanks to the Chancellor’s difficult but necessary Emergency Budget. It was clear in the second week of May, and it is clear today, that the uncertainty of a minority Conservative government, unable to last the tests of time, would have continued to undermine rather than enhance Britain’s economic standing and global credit rating. A minority government would have also failed to deliver the parliamentary mandate and clout required to push through much-needed deficit-reducing legislation. This political paralysis would have led to further economic flight.
Whilst many financial challenges still lie ahead, most notably the forthcoming autumn spending round, a government working majority of nearly forty has clearly brought new confidence to the markets and bought the Coalition Government much-needed time to put in place tax and fiscal measures to reduce the deficit and create a re-balanced economy on which to build a sustainable recovery.
The coalition may not be pretty but it is undeniably a relationship birthed in the ballot boxes of the United Kingdom’s four nations. The choice for the Prime Minister in the hours and days following May 7th was either national needs must or a hollow opportunity for trumpeting political dogma; a crude choice between political sentimentalism and parliamentary arithmetic. Thankfully, pragmatism and numbers won the day.
Nonetheless, for some Conservative MPs next Monday (September 6th), voting for the Second Reading and the eventual Third Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (the Referendum Bill) will be a real challenge – especially if backbench amendments on turnout thresholds and the timing of the referendum fail to be debated and their votes carried. The Bill, which paves the way for a referendum on whether to keep the existing first past the post voting system for Westminster parliamentary elections or to replace it with an Alternative Vote (AV) system, will be the first real test, and possibly one of the most testing weeks of the Government’s tenure.
Conservative opponents of the Bill need to remind themselves that a commitment to a referendum on AV, whilst not in the last Conservative election manifesto, is a well known concession and declared cornerstone of the coalition construct, ensuring delicate eleventh hour negotiations to form the Coalition Government were successful. The Prime Minister’s commitment to bring forward the Bill has not come out of the blue. The parliamentary party were briefed about the discussions on AV well before David Cameron entered Downing Street. If colleagues wanted to protest about AV, and a few did, they had an opportunity to do so, well in advance of the Coalition Government being consummated.
A vote on AV is to Liberal Democrats MPs what an immigration cap, amending the 1972 European Communities Act, and introducing a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill, is to Conservative MPs. It is part of the great 2010 quid pro quo. The Prime Minister cannot break his word on delivering a vote on AV and neither can he break his word on standing firm on immigration and Europe. If the Prime Minister delivers the parliamentary votes on AV, then Nick Clegg needs to deliver votes on immigration and Europe. These cross-party challenges suggest there are many more coalition tests to come.
It is also worth underscoring that the referendum bill is not an end in itself. It is the beginning of a process, a seven month process, and the starting gun in a national debate with both sides already mounting well-funded campaigns. If the anti-AV campaign avoids splintering into personality, party, and partisan-led factions, then it is a campaign that can and should be won. The anti-AV campaign will also benefit from cross-party support, a mostly sceptical national media, and high profile political and celebrity support. It will be well worth monitoring the editorial position of the BBC during the campaign. The corporation will need to remain scrupulously neutral if it is to restore trust in its ability to report news impartially.
The antics and grandstanding of a small but vocal group of Conservative MPs, most with genuine and principled concerns about the direction of the Bill, although not all have such worthy motives, proves King Solomon accurate in that "there is nothing new under the sun". Indeed, the Prime Minister will need all the Wisdom of Solomon and the loyalty of his backbenchers if the Bill is to carry and the coalition avoid being damaged irreparably. This is loyalty David Cameron deserves and the country deserves. The last thing the country needs is another general election, immediately, or in the near future. Moreover, even for so-called "Right-wingers" the coalition’s first one hundred days blitzkrieg of policies has given them plenty to cheer about. Let the cheering continue – and let the Bill pass.