Politics, actually

20 May 11
Mike Thatcher

All relationships go through phases. It’s probably fair to say that the Conservative/LibDem coalition has entered the realistic phase.

The honeymoon in the rose garden is over and the disenchantment has begun. Now in their second year together, Nick is upset over what Dave said in the AV referendum debates and Dave doesn’t appreciate Nick’s threats over the health Bill.

There have been tiffs and tantrums. But, as Peter Riddell concludes in our cover feature (see Where did it all go wrong?), the likelihood is that they will stay together – for the sake of their political careers if nothing else.

What this will mean for the public sector is another question. The NHS legislation is in limbo, elected police commissioners have been stymied and the oft-delayed public services reform white paper has still to see the light of day.

Much of the conflict is over the extent of private sector involvement in reshaped public services. But there is also an element of the junior partner asserting some independence.

If Anna Turley is correct (see Local elections, national fall-out, by Anna Turley), we can expect further contention, particularly in areas of local government concern such as elected mayors, the resource review and free schools.

‘Muscular liberalism’ might enable Nick to show a bit of machismo following his election bruising, but it’s not doing much for decisive government in the age of austerity.

What started out as a radical administration – whether or not you agree with the policies – has become mired in internal disputes and rancour. The body language of the prime minister and his deputy at their recent first anniversary Olympic Park appearance said it all.

Coalition unity has remained solid in one vital area, however. The aim of eliminating the structural deficit by the end of the Parliament has the continuing support of key players in both parties.

But this harmony is likely to come under pressure as LibDem MPs start to realise that being a ‘human shield’ for the Tories is unlikely to get them re-elected.

For the moment, the economy is a little stronger than many feared. Unemployment is falling, growth has returned, interest rates are low and inflation, though high, is forecast to fall next year.

If the economic outlook changes, as it well might, the coalition’s new ‘transactional’ relationship will come under increasing strain. Given a double-dip, it could be heading for the divorce courts.

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