The Coalition: we’re trapped in a loveless marriage with no happy ending in sight

by Stephen Tall on May 9, 2013

The Guardian’s Martin Kettle has an acute analysis — This is the beginning of the end for the coalition — of what the Queen’s Speech has revealed about the Coalition Government.

It’s 20 years since Norman Lamont, smarting from being sacked as Chancellor by John Major, accused the Tories’ last majority government of ‘giving the impression of being in office but not in power’. Well, the Coalition is in office and it is in power (the big long-term reforms from Steve Webb on pensions and Norman Lamb on social care show that). But it is no longer in harmony. Instead we’re trapped in a loveless marriage, forced to stick together because we can’t afford the costs of divorce.

Here’s how Martin puts it:

Yes, it will continue in office, probably for the full two remaining years. It remains united, in political expediency terms at least, by the overarching need to show that the economic strategy followed since 2010 is at last beginning to bear fruit, if it does. It also remains united by the fact that it needs to stay in office for its own credibility. This is not 1923 or 1929, when a variety of alternative coalition configurations existed. Today, there is only one viable coalition on offer. The Cameron-Clegg coalition will therefore soldier on. It is, like the banks, too big to fail.

But the larger animating purpose articulated by the coalition enthusiasts in 2010, the possibility that there was a sustainable liberal-conservative alternative to both Labour and to Thatcherite Conservatism, has failed. The apostles of this view, who certainly included David Cameron and Nick Clegg themselves, wanted to create a compassionate, internationalist, less intrusive, greener and more modern form of social and economic liberalism. True, they can point to some successes along the way, but in the main they have not done what they set out to do – and the new focus on immigration underscores their failure.

All true. My only disagreement would be that Martin dates this ‘beginning of the end’ to this week. No. The Coalition’s beginning of the end dates back much further, to the early part of 2011 when Tory high command, spooked by the thought that the alternative vote might win (as polls then suggested it could), agreed to unleash the dogs of war on Nick Clegg.

They won the battle, but have lost the war.

Battered and bruised, Nick Clegg had no choice but to pursue an active policy of differentiation: any form of ‘Coalition 2.0′ renewal died then. Meanwhile the Tories — spooked again, this time by the rise of Ukip (which AV would have made redundant) — shift ever more rightwards on Europe and immigration, widening the chasm between the Coalition partners.

Here’s Martin again:

The coalition is now little more than the sum of its parts. On the one hand there is a Tory majority that smells upcoming electoral defeat, senses Cameron is a loser, suspects George Osborne has steered the economy on to the rocks and is losing its head over Ukip, which some see as the repository of a truer Thatcherite Toryism.

On the other there is the Lib Dem minority, gripped by being a party of government, focused on the need to hold on to its 57 seats in 2015, massively aware of the possibility of wider eclipse and, partly for that reason, newly uncompromising in its refusal to do the very things over Europe, human rights, supply-side economics and Trident that their increasingly rightwing partners increasingly long to do.

Looking at the Coalition now I’m reminded of Charles and Diana’s marriage. The fairytale (perhaps naive) romance that blossomed happily, then gradually faded, and eventually settled into sullen, mutual resentment, a pretence of togetherness maintained only for the sake of duty.

That’s where we are. No obvious escape. No promise of a happy ending. Just two years of grim endurance.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.