By Peter Hoskin
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it on the heat or whatever, but we’re spending a lot of time talking about the
shelf-life of the Coalition at the moment. There was my post last
Saturday, itself a distillation of articles by Matthew Parris and Simon Heffer,
about when the Tories and Lib Dems should split apart. That was followed, on
Sunday, by Graham Brady
and Bernard Jenkin advocating a split next year. And subsequently both Paul Goodman and Steve
have written columns about the prospect of another Coalition after 2015. It’s
almost as though we’re less than two years away from an election, and the whole
thing has become a pressing concern.
way of summarising some of the current arguments, I thought I’d produce a quick
list of the reasons to think that there will be another Con-Lib Coalition after
the next election, and the reasons to think that there won’t be. Of course, as
with much political soothsaying, this is based on how things look now. The
overriding determinant of whether or not there will be another Coalition is
simply the next election result. A strong Conservative majority, or a strong
Labour majority, could reduce everything below to naught. But I hope you’ll
read it anyway…
think that there WILL be a Con-Lib Coalition after 2015
I’ve said this plenty of
times before and I still believe it: Nick Clegg is a more natural bedfellow
for the Tories, and particularly Cameroonian Tories, than for Labour. This was
true before the last election, when, without many people noticing, Clegg
corralled his party towards the centre-right with a three-pronged emphasis on
tax cuts, fiscal restraint and public service reform. And it’s remained true in
Coalition. He still has the same political make-up as he did in 2010. And he is
still a particularly
vituperative critic of Labour and all their works. Were he to remain Lib Dem leader
after 2015, it’s unlikely he would gambol happily into the Miliband paddock.
speaking, there are three major areas of political overlap between the Tories
and the Lib Dems: deficit reduction, welfare reform and schools reform. And,
again broadly speaking, these are this current Government’s three defining
tasks. But there’s another quality to them, too. As I wrote in a column last year, they
are all scheduled to reach important landmarks in 2017. That’s when the
structural deficit is expected to enter surplus. It’s when, all going to plan,
the Universal Credit will be fully introduced. And it’s when Gove’s new exams
will be taken for
Were the Lib Dems to side with Labour after the next election, they could say
goodbye to all that, and much else that the Coalition has put in place. Would
they really want to?
We should all know the score by now: despite the Tories’ beach ball bounce into
the summer, David Cameron still faces one helluva task at the next election. Thanks
to the peculiarities of Britain’s boundary system, the Conservatives would
require a seven-point lead in 2015 just to scrape a majority. Whereas, right
now, if you take all the recent polls together, they’re probably seven points behind Labour. So rein in your
expectations, folks: another hung parliament is probably a more likely outcome
than a Tory majority. Which leaves Cameron with, as Paul put it in his
Telegraph article this week, a choice: “Should he strain for the bare Tory
majority which is scarcely possible, or plan for a more practicable outcome – a
second coalition?” You can bet, pragmatist that he is, he’ll go for the second
think that there WON’T be a Con-Lib Coalition after 2015
- The other
electoral reality. Of course, there’s another way of looking at those harsh electoral
facts I mentioned above: even if there is another hung parliament, it’s more
likely that Labour will be the largest party within it. Judging by the last set
of coalition negotiations, this wouldn’t necessarily mean that the Lib Dems
would sidle over to Ed Miliband – but it would make Miliband the favourite for
their affections. Indeed, Clegg has already
suggested that he’d put aside “personal likes and dislikes” after such a
result, for “the Liberal Democrats would need to do their duty”.
It’s been quite some time since the friends of Vince Cable – aka, Lord
Oakeshott – took to newsprint to slather praise on their man, but that would
surely change if the Lib Dems underwhelm at the next election. A few well-placed
endorsements here, some slashing and dicing there, and Cable could even ascend
to his party’s throne. This is a scenario that I’ve
imagined before, and it carries one obvious implication: the Lib Dems would
become much friendlier towards the Labour party. Cable, we know, is both politically
closer to Miliband than Clegg is. Going off the latest
Liberal Democrat Voice poll, something similar could be said of the party’s
activists as well.
it might not require a Cable leadership for the Lib Dems to nuzzle up to
Labour. As I pointed out above, Clegg has already said that he’d put aside his
personal likes and dislikes to deal with Miliband – but the thing is, there’s actually a growing amount of “like” between the pair. As we know, the days when the Labour leader shunned his Lib Dem counterpart are long gone, to be replaced with “more understanding and even respect”. Sure, it remains true that Clegg is no natural friend for Labour, but even small shifts in the atmospheric pressure can make a diference. As Andrew Adonis makes clear in his 5 Days in May, the testy relationship between Clegg and Gordon Brown, and the easy one between the former and Cameron, went some way to scuppering a Lab-Lib coalition in 2010.
red lines. Another reason why a Cable leadership might not be necessary: despite the political overlap between Clegg and Cameron, there is political difference, too – and that difference is becoming more and more significant. We've seen it in recent weeks with Europe, Trident and benefit cuts. But what matters isn't so much that the blue team would do one thing and the yellow another, but whether either side would budge during coalition negotiations. In other words, where will the "red lines" be come the next election? From what we're seeing, there's a chance that the Tories' and Lib Dems' red lines will strangle the possibility of easy union. Whereas Labour and the Lib Dems are increasingly lining up together, as it were.
- Backbench discontent. Simple fact is – after years of the current Coalition, during which they feel their party's self-identity has been eroded – many Tory backbenchers would prefer minority government, and some Lib Dems would prefer coaltion with Labour. Even if Cameron and Clegg want to renew their vows, they will have to do so against the preferences of their colleagues. Or at least change a whole load of minds.
three reasons to believe there will be another Con-Lib Coalition after the next
election, and five to believe there won’t be – and I figure that’s about right.
My own position, more or less explicit in posts such as this and this, is that the
Tory leadership should be working to lay the ground for another Coalition, but
I don’t think they’ve been doing enough in that regard. The potential for another Con-Lib union, and even for the current Con-Lib union, is not what it once was.