Today’s Daily Telegraph and Mirror offer a snapshot of the state of the Government. In the Telegraph, the Liberal Democrats are reported to be blocking the lower cap on council tax increases that Eric Pickles wants. In the Mirror, Danny Alexander says that George Osborne will cut the top rate of tax “over my dead body”, and the comrades find him “visibly annoyed at suggestions that he is a Tory in disguise”. These disagreements follow a very well-publicised one earlier this week – David Laws’s falling-out with Michael Gove about the non-reappointment of Baroness Morgan as the Chairman of Ofsted.
Readers know well that these recent events are part of a settled pattern. At last year’s Liberal Democrat conference, Nick Clegg cited 16 Conservative policies that he claimed that his Party had blocked. (A month later, Stephen Tall, over at Liberal Democrat Voice and also of this parish, joyously raised the count to 17.) Such is the logic of differentiation – that’s to say, separating themselves from the Tories while at the same time staying with them in government. The Lib Dems are behaving rather like a spouse who doesn’t want to be with their partner but won’t move out of the house – and, when asked about this peculiar behaviour, boasts that at least he’s stopping that spouse re-decorating the home and building an extension.
That’s not to say that the Conservatives are any happier in this loveless cohabitation either (though David Cameron’s own attitude to Coalition is deeply ambiguous), or that the Lib Dems’ behaviour is without logic. Essentially, any small party in coalition is in danger of seeing its identity subsumed by its larger partner. This problem is especially acute for Clegg’s party, whose support base is a jumble of left and right-leaning voters, not to mention a big dollop of protest ones. The Coalition has seen the former decamp to Labour – all fired up by the tuition fees fiasco and much that has followed it. So the closer Clegg draws to Cameron, the louder he must protest.
So there is precious little point in a Conservative site complaining about the Liberal Democrats blocking Conservative policies. There is one, though, in asking this: we know what Clegg’s party is against the Government doing, but what is it for the Government doing? What does it want the Coalition to achieve during its remaining shelf-life? According to today’s Times (£), they want expats to have their own MPs in the Commons. But this proposal is reportedly to go to the Party’s Conference, not to a Cabinet committee. There is the occasional flash of light: Clegg wants a Royal Commission on drugs policy – which, whatever you think about the legalisation and decriminalisation debate, is at least a positive idea. But his Party is mostly in the negative business of blocking.
There is work for Number 10 to do in the vacuum as the election approaches – letting Tory backbenchers off the leash in the Commons, for example, to float policies from the next manifesto. (We might guess, crossing our fingers, at a commitment to leave the ECHR, to extend the freeze in fuel duty, to offer justice for England by answering the West Lothian question, to lower the welfare cap.) After all, differentiation is a two-way business. But it is very hard to see how a Queen’s Speech is going to be crafted from this stasis (for all Chris Grayling’s best efforts). After all, mild-mannered Danny Alexander would rather have his cold, blood-spattered, lifeless body hauled off to the morgue than see a cut in the top rate of tax.