By Tim Montgomerie
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In the early 1980s nearly half of the British people identified coalition government as their preferred model of government. Today, after two years of watching the political horse-trading involved in the current LibCon alliance, that percentage has declined to under one quarter*. The British people like the idea of politicians working together but they also think they should honour manifesto promises. One or both of those two things have to give when in coalition.
But if this Coalition government hasn't boosted overall public confidence in the idea of multi-party government there have been a few signs in the last two or three weeks that Cameron and Clegg haven't given up on their project:
- A week ago we got a new push towards deregulation and planning reform. The Tories seem to have 'bought' this by allowing Vince Cable (and David Willetts) to pursue their idea of some sort of industrial policy.
- Last night I was a guest on Five Live for Jon Pienaar's Politics programme. The main guest was Norman Lamb, the new Lib Dem health minister. He was upbeat about the prospect of the Coalition securing a deal on long-term care.
- And then there's the news from the last 24 hours that Michael Gove and Nick Clegg have reached a deal on reforming the exams that the nation's sixteen year-olds sit. Earlier in the summer when Michael Gove's plans for a new O-Level were leaked to the Daily Mail the Deputy PM went ballistic. It was seen as another low point in the life of the Coalition. Gove, one of the biggest enthusiasts for the Cameron-Clegg partnership, in its earliest days, was becoming increasingly frustrated at its failure to deliver. Fast forward to today and the two men have struck a deal. Gove gets a tougher, more conventional exam that, unlike the GCSE, won't be made up of multiple modules that can be resat and resat. Grades will be tougher or more honest, depending upon how you want to spin it. Clegg has, however, won concessions too. The exam will be introduced a year later (making it vulnerable to Labour cancelling it, should they win the next election) and also, reports The Guardian, it will a one-tier exam sat by most pupils, not a two-tier system as the Education Secretary had originally envisaged.
I imagine that we have a three to six month window in which – post-reshuffle, post-Olympics and recession-spooked** – the Coalition might achieve some more forward momentum. The parties will then realise it's just two years until an election. Helped by a slow recovery the Tories will move into a "grey zone" – too competitive in the polls for David Cameron to be ousted but not competitive enough to secure a working majority. The Lib Dems in contrast will be overtaken by leadership speculation. Satisfaction with Nick Clegg has hit a new low (-61%). It's only a matter of time before he is replaced. As Matthew d'Ancona wrote in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph that won't be such a bad thing if, say, Vince Cable takes over close to the end of the parliament. Conservatives need the LibDems to win back some of their left-wing voters if we're to avoid the "Gettleson meltdown". Cable or Farron are best placed to do that.
* Revealed in the new British Social Attitudes report, published today and quoted in the FT (£).
** To steal James Forsyth's expression.