It is time to review the nature and functioning of the Coalition. The Coalition Agreeement may have said much about the Conservative and Lib Dem parties finding common ground, but in truth everyone knows that the Coalition deal came down to three things:
- The Lib Dems supported (and contributed to) plans to cut spending and cut the deficit
- The Conservatives supported plans for a referendum on AV
- The Conservatives got to be in government proving they weren’t evil, and the Lib Dems got to be in government proving they were serious
Beyond these three elements, everything else about the Coalition agreement is an irritation or an irrelevant detail. Everyone knows this.
Well, for good or ill we’ve had the AV referendum, so the Lib Dems got to have that part of the deal. And the Lib Dems supported the first Coalition plan for spending cuts and tax rises. The Lib Dems have had their ministerial cars and got to be hated by students – as all serious politicians are. The Conservatives haven’t managed to prove we aren’t evil – but that was always a forlorn hope anyway, and frankly most of us didn’t care.
So it’s tempting to think there is no further purpose to the Coalition. I opposed having a Coalition on the basis it was formed at the time, but I didn’t oppose having Lib Dems in the government per se – I’d never have minded them getting cabinet seats in return for their support; it was only giving them any influence over constitutional or European policy or anything they and we actually fundamentally differed upon that I objected to. And I don’t see any particularly urgent need to dissolve the Coalition now, in the narrow sense of Lib Dems continuing in government. After all, Conservatives worked perfectly happily with the National Liberals through until 1968, and National Liberals such as John Scott Maclay and Charles Hill held cabinet positions. A number of Lib Dem ministers and others seem very likely to vote with the Conservatives through the rest of their careers — Danny Alexander, David Laws, Jeremy Browne and others work very well with Conservative colleagues, and will, I assume, vote with us ever hereafter, come what may.
But it is unclear why these worthy individuals should have any more influence over government policy than do the small number of liberal Europhiles in the Conservative Party. The obvious counter is that we are not granting these individuals influence – rather, it is the 57 Lib Dem MPs that have the influence.
But what do we need them for now, really? They can’t start voting against the deficit reduction programme already announced now – quite apart from the enormous internal splits in the Lib Dems that would induce, they would not gain any extra credibility with the public by backing out now. We don’t actually need the Lib Dem backbenchers to vote for the government on finance matters to have a majority – the 18 Lib Dem ministers plus the 307 Conservatives secure a practical majority, even if all Lib Dems were to vote against the government. In practice many Lib Dem backbenchers would probably be much happier abstaining, and there is no particular problem if they did – their abstention would be adequate to give a comfortable majority.
Of course, with growth being poor and the risk of meltdown in the Eurozone, there is every chance that the government will need, in due course, to announce additional spending cuts. But I think it’s a pretty forlorn hope that the Lib Dem backbenchers will actually vote for that. They think the deficit reduction programme is the spending cuts and tax rises already announced — they don’t think they’ve committed to supporting some abstract moving target of eliminating a structural current deficit, such that a worsening of the growth outlook automatically implies their support for extra cuts.
Given that the Lib Dem backbenchers aren’t going to support extra spending cuts if/when those are required, and can’t plausibly vote against those already agreed, what exactly what do we need them for? Is the thought that they might be able to entice the Lib Dem frontbenchers out of their ministerial cars and get them to vote for an early election? Given that such an election would see the Lib Dems slaughtered, how do you suppose they would sell that to the ministers? “Give up your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually implement some of the things you believe in, at three times your backbench salary, being feted in the media, and with the trappings of office, so as to vote with us for a General Election at which you might lose your seat.” I think the answer might be: “It’s a very clever plan, but I think I’ll have to pass this time…” And on the other side, the maths of forming a Coalition with the Labour Party would remain as infeasible as it did in 2010, even were no Lib Dem ministers to stay with the Conservatives.
Is it something to do with honour, with sticking to the agreement now we had their backing for the first round of cuts? But that honour was served by having the AV referendum. From the Lib Dem point of view, aside from the trappings and credibility of office, the sole point of the Coalition was to give them their shot at electoral reform – the main raison d’être of their party for decades. They had their shot. Foolishly or otherwise, we honoured our side of the bargain. Done. Dusted. Honour served. Time to move on.
So given that the Lib Dem backbenchers aren’t going to vote against the existing deficit reduction programme, aren’t going to vote for any more cuts, aren’t going to be able to form a government with Labour, aren’t going to trigger a General Election, and have no claim of honour upon influencing us any more since the AV referendum, what do we need them for?
So, fine — let’s carry on with the Lib Dem ministers that provide solid practical contributions in welfare reform, education, public spending control, diplomatic and military affairs and so on. And perhaps even we might compromise with some high-powered individuals to keep them onside and because pragmatic compromise is part of governing — provided we are compromising with them as worthy individuals much as we might compromise with Ken Clarke as a worthy individual.
But we do not need to compromise with the Lib Dems qua party any more. They offer us nothing — neither threat nor contribution. Honour has been served. Time for us to move on to our issues — on the EU, or the nature of the next round of spending cuts, on the ECHR, on NHS reform, we must offer practical Conservative results, serving the needs of our members just as the AV referendum served the needs of Lib Dem members. If the Lib Dem backbenchers prefer sometimes to abstain or even vote against us, so be it.
The first, co-governing, phase of the Coalition should now be done. From here we need an agreement where the Lib Dem ministers work with us for the trappings of office, and the Lib Dem backbenchers offer us, perhaps inconsistent, confidence-and-supply.