Cameron to “rule out second Lib-Con coalition” claims Telegraph. It may be a bluff but that doesn’t mean he won’t be forced to do it.

by Stephen Tall on February 25, 2014

Today’s Telegraph splashes on the claim that David Cameron is preparing to rule out the possibility of a second Coalition with the Lib Dems if the Tories are the largest single party but lack a majority:

The Prime Minister wants to make a commitment in the Conservative Party election manifesto not to sign a second power-sharing deal with a smaller party in the event of a hung parliament next May, it is understood. Instead, a Conservative party that won the most seats but lacked a Commons majority would attempt to rule as a minority government, a course that would almost certainly lead to its early collapse and a quick second election. Mr Cameron’s allies believe the high-stakes promise would confront voters with a stark choice: an all-Conservative government or rule by Labour, possibly in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. “He’s very clear, he doesn’t want another Coalition,” a source close to Mr Cameron has told The Telegraph.

When I read this last night, my initial instinct was to be dubious. It smacked to me of David Cameron trying to pacify his troublesome right-wing backbenchers by re-inforcing the idea he’s only sticking with the Lib Dems because he has to, not because he prefers dealing with Nick Clegg to Peter Bone.

After all, why would the Prime Minister want to tie his hands ahead of a general election? If I were Cameron and wanting to ditch the Lib Dems come what may, I wouldn’t pre-announce that I’d vetoed the idea of a second Coalition, which risks appearing petty and tribal.

No, here’s what I’d do… First, wait for the election result, and see what options are available. Then, if a Lib-Con coalition is possible, I’d say it’s conditional on the Lib Dems agreeing to a raft of populist Conservative policies I know Clegg & Co could never agree to (more welfare cuts, more immigration restrictions, withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights). That way my rejection of a Coalition would 1) look principled, and 2) put pressure on the Lib Dems to defend our policies on these issues.

It’s what – from a right-wing Tory point of view – Cameron should have done in May 2010, instead of putting forward his “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems. No-one can say for sure what would have happened in a second election in October 2010, but I’d be amazed if the Tories hadn’t won an outright majority in such circumstances.

But that was then and this is now. If Cameron now were to try such a bluff and call a quick second election in 2015 would the voters reward him – at the THIRD attempt – with an outright majority?

And that assumes he would be able to call an election. If Cameron lost his first Queen’s Speech, wouldn’t Her Majesty be likely to call for Ed Miliband, to see if he could form a government? And wouldn’t the Lib Dems be inclined to give him a chance, whether in formal coalition or by loaning him the votes through a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement?

The only thing I can be sure of with such a chain of events is that David Cameron, who would by then have been Conservative leader for 10 years, wouldn’t be able to remain in that post.

It’s because pre-vetoing a second Coalition puts Cameron at the mercy of events that I’m dubious of the Telegraph story and can’t help thinking it’s a bit of spin to keep his troops happy. The trouble for Cameron, though, is it raises the stakes. If it was bluff and he has no intention of ruling out a second Coalition he will have to explain why to his MPs. And so far this parliament, they have been a lot more successful than he has in winning the battle of wills.

From a Lib Dem perspective, I’d be relaxed about such an announcement from David Cameron. It’s true that the Lib Dem negotiating hand in the event of a hung parliament would be stronger if both Labour and the Tories were equally likely partners.

But set against that loss are two gains.

First, the Lib-Con Coalition does seem to have run out of road. It’s hard to imagine how a further five years in power together could be sustained – there just aren’t enough shared policy aims left.

And secondly, it will re-inforce the public impression of the Tories as a party drifting further to the right away from the mainstream. I think a lot of sensible Tories would worry where their party would end up without the Lib Dems able to offer some moderating influence.

So I’d be surprised if Cameron were to use the next Tory manifesto to rule out a second Coalition – but simply by raising the possibility he may find he has little choice but to follow through on his own bluff.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.