By Peter Hoskin
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the Tories snubbed the Lib Dems over the future of Trident, as the Guardian suggests
today? Downing Street would certainly have us believe not. According to them, Philip
Hammond’s announcement of a £350 million contract aimed at renewing our nuclear
deterrent is all part of the Coalition’s plan. “As the Defence Secretary has made very clear, we are
progressing on the design and development,” quoth a spokesman earlier, “The
decision on construction will not be
taken until 2016.”

But when you read what
Mr Hammond said
today, you can understand why Lib Dems — opposed to a
like-for-like replacement for Trident — might be afeared. “Our continuous submarine-based nuclear deterrent is the
ultimate safeguard of our national security and the government is committed to
maintaining it, both now and in the future,” is how it put it in his official
statement. And, elsewhere,
he attacked those who would seek to upset a system that has been in place for
43 years, claiming that they cannot predict what threats the UK will face in “20,
30, 40 or 50 years’ time”.

So, little wonder why Nick Clegg
felt a need to respond
thus: “The idea of a like-for-like entirely unchanged replacement of
Trident is basically saying we will spend billions and billions and billions of
pounds on a nuclear missile system designed with the sole strategic purpose of
flattening Moscow at the press of a button.” This is rather a sore point
between the two parties in Government.

Yet the main reason I mention all this — apart from it being
noteworthy in itself — is because it completes a significant run. A
month-and-a-half ago, I produced a list
of the major concessions
that the Tories could make to the Lib Dems in
return for, say, support for the boundaries review. But in the intervening
period, around the party conferences, there’s been even more reason to believe
that none of those concessions will ever happen. One of those concessions was
Trident. Here are the other five, with a bit of commentary on how they’ve been
knocked back:

i) Fewer benefit cuts… The Lib Dems didn’t like the
idea of £10 billion in extra benefit cuts, for the couple of years after the
next election, even when George Osborne merely mooted it during his Budget speech
this year. But the Chancellor, in tandem with Iain Duncan Smith, has since confirmed
that those £10 billion of cuts are something that he’s actually aiming for.        

ii) …unless they are cuts to Universal benefits. This one seemed particularly unlikely even when I wrote my original
post. In a session of PMQs before the summer break, David Cameron pointed out
that, “At the last election I made a very clear
promise about bus passes, about television licences, about winter fuel payments.
We are keeping all those promises.” And Downing Street
subsequently suggested that those promises might persist past 2015. That position
doesn't seem to have changed.

iii) A wealth tax. In the words of George Osborne, speaking to
the Mail on Sunday
at the start of Tory conference: “We are not going to
have a mansion tax, or a new tax that is a percentage value of people’s
properties. … Nor will there be a wealth tax or annual tax on assets,
temporary or otherwise. It is completely unenforceable. It would become a tax
avoider’s charter.”

iv) Party funding. Would the Tories change their position on party
funding to force the boundaries review through? In truth, the answer to that question
is still unclear, although Grant Shapps has denied
that a deal has been discussed, and Nick Clegg has also spoken
against the possibility of it happening.

v) Immigration caps. From a lengthy passage defending the immigration
cap in Theresa
May’s speech
at party conference: “[Some people] argue that our cap on
economic migration makes us less competitive – but the limit stops economic
migration getting out of control; it hasn’t been reached once since it was
introduced. … I agree that we need to support our best colleges and
universities and encourage the best students to come here – but to say
importing more and more immigrants is our best export product is nothing but
the counsel of despair. … We were elected on a promise to cut immigration,
and that is what I am determined we will deliver.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Tories won’t concede
anything to the Lib Dems from now on. Things change; policies can be tweaked;
there are no doubt other concessions that Clegg & Co. will seek; and so on
and so on. But it does suggest how the Coalition might operate from here on in,
with both sides keener to mark out the differences that exist between them on
major issues, and not muddy the territory in between. Rather than big
concessions either way, the Coalition might be held together more by happy cooperation
in policy areas such as those
I also listed
last month.

The question is whether this is a positive thing, overall,
from a Conservative perspective. Without concession, the boundary changes may
really be dead for this Parliament. But without concession, the Tories might also
be a more distinct proposition come the next election. Is this good? Is this
bad? I’m keen to hear your thoughts.