Is this the day the Coalition admitted reality and buried its claim to be a radical government?

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2012

One of the iconic images of the early days of the Coalition — in the midst of the summer haze of the leggeron rose garden bromance — was The Economist’s front cover depicting the Prime Minister as a punk, representing the Coalition’s self-appointed claim to be one of the most radical governments in history.

Economically (a cuts agenda intended to rebalance the economy between the private/public sectors), socially (from free schools to gay marriage) and politically (police commissioners to Lords reform) — this ‘liberal conservative government’ was supposed to be a potent admixture of far-reaching reform.

The end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?

Today, as Messrs Clegg and Cameron posed amid tractors in Essex, it felt like — two years in — the reality had caught up with the rhetoric. The pressures of managing a 24-hour government, on top of managing precarious coalitions within as well as between parties, appears to have sucked dry the zeal of this Government.

Some will breathe a sigh of relief. After all, it is precisely that reform agenda — on the NHS, on tuition fees — which has caused so many problems, certainly for the Lib Dem half of the Coalition.

But the Coalition was always a package deal: some things we had to lump, other things the Tories had to lump. This has antagonised loyal members in both parties. Some have walked away, while others have reluctantly (sometimes unsuccessfully) bitten their tongues. Yet, agree or disagree with the agenda, it imbued the Coalition with a sense of momentum that elevated it above the grind of relentless austerity.

Then six months ago, with George Osborne’s autumn statement, came the realisation that the Coalition would not succeed in its aim of eliminating the deficit within the current parliament. Suddenly, Lib Dem and Tory hopes of going into the next election in 2015 on the back of a ‘We fixed the economy’ banner evaporated.

Instead there are years of public spending cuts to come, and an economy bumping along at recession or just above. Combine that with dire election results for both Coalition parties, and signs from across Europe that incumbent governments are being booted out by their electorate regardless of whether they’re from the left or right of the political spectrum, and cue Tory MPs (mostly) panicking. Their hopes of a Conservative-only government after 2015 are beginning to recede into the distance.

They’ll Lord it if we drop it

David Cameron — who, unlike Nick Clegg, neither sought nor was granted by his party members a mandate to form a coalition — is in trouble. All those years of riding roughshod over those of his backbenchers from the wrong side of the tracks is now coming back to haunt the Tory leader.

Just as, after last year’s drubbing at the polls and in the AV referendum Lib Dems demanded their pound of flesh in the form of NHS Bill concessions, so are Tories now looking for their payback. Except the Tories are now attempting to un-do the Coalition Agreement (which was silent on the Health and Social Care Bill) by blocking the House of Lords reform to which their manifestos of 2001, 2005 and 2010 have committed their party.

In return, it’s claimed by Channel 4′s Gary Gibbon here, the Lib Dems are going to block the Coalition Agreement’s pledge to equalise votes by reducing the number of MPs and re-drawing the boundaries accurately to reflect population changes. Though this will make it harder for the Tories to achieve a majority at the next election, many Tory MPs will be happy enough that their seats are protected — and anyway if they’re booted out by the voters in 2015 there would always be the chance of a hospital pass to a still-unelected Lords. That’s what we call a vested interest.

There’s an irony here for the Lib Dems. Stopping the boundary changes works to the Lib Dems’ electoral advantage. The greatest threat to the party at the next election — assuming the polls are less favourable than they were in 2010 — is our incumbent MPs having to fight on new constituency boundaries. Lib Dem MPs take root in their patch: take them even a little outside of their patch and they’re much more vulnerable. Failing to reform the boundaries also increases the chances of a hung parliament at the next election, and so sustains the importance of the Lib Dems into the next parliament even if our total number of MPs is reduced.

Set against all that, of course, is the principle of Lords reform, of letting the voters have a say in who gets to make the laws of the land we all have to live by. A century in the un-making, ejecting patronage and injecting democracy into the second chamber is in the Lib Dems’ DNA. When Ben Norman wrote here on LDV in his excellent post-election reflections ‘I want my party to win, but I want our ideas implemented more than that’, he might very well have had this quandary in mind.

There’s still hope. Just.

My hope was that the Coalition would have a ratcheting-up effect, that the novelty of working together for a finite period of time would inject an urgency into a government that would desire a legacy. For a while that seemed to be the case. But buffeted by mid-term woes it appears the Coalition is retreating to lowest-common-denominator policies in which blocking the other party’s reforms is more important than promoting your own.

There’s still a chance, of course. We’re only two years through a five-year parliament. But it feels like the reforming blood is draining from this Government’s body. Those Lib Dems who rejoice in that fact should pause to think what that means for public enthusiasm for coalitions (with any party) in the future, or indeed for any measure of electoral reform that makes coalitions more likely.

For years we Lib Dems were cautioned ‘Be careful what you wish for’ when crossing our fingers in hope of a hung parliament. That warning is so much truer of the very real prospect of this Coalition failing.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.