Where did it all go wrong?

20 May 11
The mood music has changed and, since the May 5 elections, the relationship will never be the same again. So, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats locked into a loveless coalition, what does the froideur mean for public services, asks Peter Riddell

By Peter Riddell | 1 June  2011

The mood music has changed and, since the May 5 elections, the relationship will never be the same again. So, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats locked into a loveless coalition, what does the froideur mean for public services?


Coalition governments survive if the participants retain a mutual interest in staying together. But they only prosper if the participants have a degree of mutual trust between them. The former, the reason for the formation of the coalition in May 2010, is still intact. But the latter – the spirit of the Rose Garden launch – has been severely strained, if not broken. That raises doubts about some of the highly contentious policies on public services reform now being proposed and pushed through Parliament.

The key change has been not just the Liberal ­Democrats’ big losses in the May 5 elections, nor the overwhelming defeat of the Alternative Vote, but the manner in which the campaign was fought. The ferocity of the largely Conservative attacks on Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats for betraying their election pledges amounted to a rejection of the coalition as a means of conducting politics in a new way.

That contrasts with the mood in the first six months of the coalition – really up to the announcement of October’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the tuition fees vote in the autumn. Until then, many Conservative and LibDem ministers – certainly those at the top – talked as if the coalition was a desirable end in itself, creating opportunities for them to propose changes that might have been impossible otherwise. Ministers from one party spoke warmly about how they enjoyed working with ministers from the other party, whom they had hardly known before.

This honeymoon mood was partly to do with the euphoria of power; and partly a slightly self-righteous unity against Labour about the priority of cutting the deficit. But there was also a big element of wishful thinking, and even naivety on the part of some LibDems about the Tories, which disguised differences of instinct between the parties as well as of policy.

The underlying differences have been increasingly exposed over the past six months, not just the raw nerves over tuition fees but also  the working through of spending cuts to the local level and the arguments over NHS reform. But what has really upset the LibDems has been the contemptuous language used by the Tories during the AV campaign, and particularly the strength of the attacks by Prime Minister David Cameron himself. That has shattered the earlier talk about the virtues of the ­coalition as a means of governing.

It has also exposed the view of many senior Tories that it is merely a regrettable, and preferably temporary, necessity in a hung Parliament at a time of financial crisis. That, of course, chimes with the instincts of the Tory Right, who would have preferred a minority government and an early election. They are now not only celebrating the humiliation of the LibDems but also arguing that they should not be given any concessions.

Cameron has sought to play down any hint of ­triumphalism, and to argue that the coalition will carry on as before – ‘as a partnership’. The LibDems, he has said, rather patronisingly, ‘have a huge opportunity in this government. For the first time in 60 years, they have a chance to prove themselves as a party of government and that is what they are doing’. Clegg has insisted that the coalition is ‘stable and durable’. The underlying political reason for the creation of the coalition remains: the need for a stable majority to take through deficit reduction. But that need not encompass some of the tricky areas of public service reform which are measures of choice not necessity.

In purely political terms, breaking up the coalition now would have risks for both leaders. It would obviously depend who triggered the break-up. For Clegg and the LibDems, any withdrawal would risk electoral annihilation, For Cameron, in the short term, say the next year or two, the end of the coalition would mean that all the public’s anger over the cuts and NHS reforms would fall on the Conservatives rather than be shared. In the most cynical Tory view, the usefulness of the LibDems as a political shield has not yet disappeared.

Moreover, when the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill becomes law later this summer, it will become much harder for the Tories to call an early general election. Indeed, under the terms of the Bill, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband might even have the chance to take the initiative by trying to form a minority government – and the Tories never want to give him that opening.

But no one – least of all the LibDems – is pretending that it is all the same as before. Clegg has talked of people wanting the LibDems ‘to be a louder voice in government’ (which people, one wonders?). He has spoken of a new phase in which both partners will be clearer in their identities. ‘We will stand together but not too closely that we stand in each other’s shadow.’

Clegg faces an acute personal dilemma. His authority has been badly damaged, notably by the tuition fees U-turn.  How can he recover it? His decision last year not to seek to head a big department is open to question. In most other coalitions, the head of the junior party takes on a major portfolio as well as being deputy leader of the government: in Germany, for example, the leader of the Free Democrats has often been foreign minister. Should Clegg have taken on the Home Office in May 2010? It was, and is, an area of major concern to the LibDems.  Clegg, instead, took on constitutional reform, but, with the defeat of AV, that responsibility offers few rewards and probably just many headaches,  and stalemate, over House of Lords reform.

That leaves the broader question of how the LibDems can re-establish their distinctive identity within the ­coalition. In the rest of the European Union, where ­coalitions are the norm because of the use of proportional representation methods of election, negotiations over policy are much more open than in the UK. Coalition partners stake out their positions publicly before decisions are taken, and then they come together behind an agreed position. The assumption is that compromise is inevitable – and there are no shouts of betrayal or U-turn when this happens. Indeed, parties go into elections on the assumption that they will have to bargain in this way.

All this is still alien to Whitehall and Westminster – and apparently to the British public, to judge by opinion polls and the results on May 5. Our political culture remains majoritarian. As the Institute for Government report, The coalition one year on shows, the civil service has adapted pretty well to the existence of this new system – from developing the coalition agreement (the longer, second version) to the revival of Cabinet committees as a means of ensuring that both partners’ views are taken into account.

But this is still basically a modification of the norms and conventions of single-party government. The civil service remains keen on preserving collective ministerial responsibility and keeping any policy disagreements private. Similarly, in Parliament, the two coalition parties are treated as one and there has been no real change towards the more consensual procedures of other countries.

The prevailing assumption among many politicians, as well as voters, is that last year’s hung Parliament and the resulting coalition was an aberration, produced by highly unusual circumstances. They believe we will revert to a single party government after the next election – particularly now that AV has been defeated. Many electoral experts disagree. They say hung Parliaments are now more likely (but not necessarily next time as the LibDems could be badly squeezed).

But the recent electoral upheavals and consequent political tensions make it hard to achieve what has pretentiously been described as a more transactional relationship, or what Clegg has delphically called ­‘muscular liberalism’. In practical terms, this seems to mean no more Rose Garden and a bit more airing of differences. The problem is how to achieve this without threatening the cohesion of the coalition. Cameron understandably does not accept that the role of one party is ‘somehow to moderate the other’.
The immediate flash point is the stalled Health & Social Care Bill, ­currently subject to review. Prominent members of the Tory right such as John Redwood, Edward Leigh and Bernard Jenkin have been urging Andrew Lansley not to make concessions over the involvement of the private sector. But plenty of other Tory MPs, as well as LibDems, are worried about the impact of reform at a time when health spending is being squeezed. This is part of a more general concern, shared by the Treasury, about the risks of undertaking sweeping changes to public services – schools, higher education, the police, welfare benefits etc – all at the same time.

We won’t know the shape or extent of the ­amendments to the NHS Bill until after Parliament’s Whitsun recess in early June. It is unlikely that the whole Bill will be dropped but there are likely to be amendments to demonstrate that universal free-at-the-point of use provision is retained. The political problem for Cameron may be less the details of the amendments than who claims the credit. Clegg will want to highlight a victory to reassure his LibDem MPs and activists in the country. But if he is too triumphalist, the Tory Right will be angered, and that will create problems for Cameron. The two leaders will no doubt agree a script about listening and commonsense, which each will spin to keep his party happy.

One consequence of the NHS row is caution about radical initiatives elsewhere, on top of the multitude of proposals that have already been announced. The long awaited public services white paper is still due to be published before the summer recess, but the word from Whitehall is that the latest of many drafts will be largely a summary of what is already happening rather than seeking to break new ground. There is no desire to stir up new controversies. However, the LibDems, in the Commons, and particularly in the less obedient Lords, might assert themselves more in seeking to amend Tory inspired Bills. This has already happened with the party’s peers providing the key votes needed to defeat proposals for directly elected police commissioners. And that is before the Bills on NHS reform and changing the benefits system have arrived in the Upper House.

There are no signs that the recent elections will have any immediate  effect on economic policy. The Tories’ success – against the usual trend for a governing party – in gaining seats in England in the local elections has reinforced the determination of the Conservative leadership – and of backbench MPs – to stick to existing deficit reduction plans. Defeated LibDem councillors may protest about the severity of local spending cuts, which are only now working through—but not Tory councillors. That, of course, might change if the party loses seats in later elections. Voters have discovered that focusing their fury on LibDems has failed to achieve the softening of cuts that they wanted.

The real threat to the coalition will, however, be the state of the economy. The latest gross domestic product figures indicated that the economy had been broadly flat since early last autumn. A few more quarters of anaemic growth – plus the acute squeeze on living standards – could undermine both the government’s deficit reduction strategy and its hopes of demonstrating that the economy is back in health by the time of the next election in May 2015.

The next 15 months up to the 2012 Olympics is the critical time for the coalition. My hunch is that the coalition will hang together, not necessarily happily but in recognition of mutual necessity. The spirit will be different. Robert Browning’s famous denunciation of William Wordsworth for deserting to the conservative cause – ‘Never glad confident morning again’ – was memorably quoted by the acerbic Nigel Birch against then prime minister Harold Macmillan in the Profumo debate in June 1963. It could be said again now. The warm glow of the Rose Garden in May 2010 seems a long time ago.

Peter Riddell is a senior fellow of the Institute for Government, and a contributor to its recent report, The coalition one year on. His latest book,
In defence of politicians – in spite of themselves, has just been published

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