Now that we’ve entered the long election campaign, everyone seems to have catapulted their attention forward to the short one. It’s all teevee debates and marginal seats. Which makes it easy to forget that an important piece of business needs resolving before then: the breakup of the Coalition. We know that it’s coming; we’ve known it’s coming for years. But now that the moment approacheth, it seems as though there’s even less speculation about it than there was at the start of this Parliament. Perhaps MPs are simply resigned to it lasting the distance.
We certainly know what ConservativeHome readers think. Every month, as part of our survey, they’re asked the question: when should the Coalition end? The latest results have “shortly before the 2015 general election” as the most popular response, with almost 40 per cent of the vote. This tallies with another question we ask: when will the Coalition end? “Shortly before the 2015 general election” claims 55 per cent of that particular vote.
As it happens, I think ConservativeHome readers are right on both counts. Paul Goodman once argued that the great schism should come in September 2014, on the grounds that this would give the Conservatives a full six months to show what they could achieve in government by themselves. But now that date has passed, the logic behind it becomes less secure. Were the Coalition to separate in, say, February that would only leave a couple of months before the start of the election campaign. Is that enough time for a Conservative government to properly take hold? Would it be worth the numerous risks?
An orderly separation “shortly before the 2015 general election” – as the survey question puts it – is much more likely. But what does “shortly before” mean? How shortly? The date that ought to be highlighted in our national calendar is 30th March. That’s when the dissolution of Parliament is scheduled for, meaning that there’s no new legislation until after the election. The Tories and the Lib Dems could tear the flesh off each other without fear of harming the Government’s work. And they could still boast that they took their union pretty much as far as it would go.
In that scenario, there’s no particular need to change the makeup of the Government. Ministers could remain in their posts on the understanding that, just like every other general election, they will spend most of their time on the stump, whilst civil servants keep the machinery of state ticking over. It would just so happen that some of those ministers will be attacking each other – but, y’know, what’s new? Vince Cable has been running a joint leadership and general election campaign for about five years now.
Or perhaps, as the political historian Dr Alun Wyburn-Powell has explained, the two sides will try to emulate 1945 and all that. On 30th March, a caretaker government could be fashioned either mostly or exclusively out of Parliamentarians from the dominant party. This would have few of the disadvantages of an early breakup: it wouldn’t leave the Lib Dems in extended conflict with the Government. But it would retain some of the benefits: the Prime Minister could reward some of those MPs who haven’t yet enjoyed ministerial office. The main question is whether David Cameron, with his aversion to reshuffles in general, would be prepared to reshuffle his deck only a month away from the election.
Of course, all this assumes and anticipates that the Coalition will continue until the election campaign. Yet there’s always the possibility, however unlikely, that it will not. In which case, Budget Day would be the most obvious date to look out for. This will be a weird Budget. It will have to cast its gaze beyond the election, and establish plans for the 2015-16 financial year in particular, but it may also be written as a manifesto according to George Osborne – and that could give the Lib Dems much to oppose. As I have observed before, they’ve already revved up their disgruntlement about the Chancellor’s cuts.
Would the Conservatives still be able to govern if they cannot pass their own Budget? The University of Manchester’s Colin Talbot says that such questions are unfounded: “governments have been defeated on amendments to Finance or Supply about 20 times over the past hundred years without it triggering a ‘confidence’ crisis.” And, besides, the choreography of the Lib Dems’ departure could allow them to raise a fuss about the Budget, but still quietly pass it on a confidence and supply basis. See cake. Have cake. Eat it.
Which brings us on to the quality of the Coalition’s breakup. My own preference is for a very civilised affair. Perhaps Cameron and Nick Clegg could stand outside Number 10, exclaiming the bounties of their union, but explaining how the dictates of electoral politics must bring it to an end. After all, now that it has lasted so long, why undo what defines it? The Coalition was founded on the promise that two parties could cohabit and cooperate in the national interest. Its real strength is that it’s not politics as usual.
Yet there’s no doubt that politics-as-usual will intrude on the election. The Conservatives will want to emphasise what they would achieve without being shackled by the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems will want to argue that they restrained the Conservatives from their worst. That’s show business for ya. But what really matters is what has been said behind the curtain. Will the two parties campaign in knowledge of each other’s conditions for another Coalition? Will their attacks be designed to sting but not wound? A degree of coordination would be prudent. Dave and Nick may have to love each other again.
As far as I’m aware, the whats, hows, whens and whys of the breakup have been given deep consideration by the two party leaderships – even if the rest of Westminster has stopped speculating. That’s as it should be. With another Hung Parliament looming, the end of this current Coalition is of more than passing interest. It could set a precedent for the next.