Coalition Coming Apart At The Seams
DAVID CAMERON and Nick Clegg took a bold step when they formed the Coalition Government in 2010. It was a union born as much out of hatred of the Labour Party as of love for each other, the latter being the predominant emotion for the first two years of the deal.
In October 2002, the current Home Secretary Theresa May stunned the Conservative Party Conference when she told delegates that the Tories were considered the “Nasty Party” and the story of Cameron’s rise to power reflects how he vigorously struggled to shake off this image. When he entered office eight years later, he actively set about vilifying the Labour Party, effectively turning them into the Nasty Party, particularly where economic management was concerned.
The Liberal Democrats had had barely a whiff of power since the 1930s but were faced with what for most of them was impossible – keeping a Tory government in power while not compromising their liberal principles.
Clegg squared that circle by enthusiastically adopting the Tory approach to the now-Opposition Labour Party and vilifying its economic management. This enabled the Lib Dems to support Cameron and jettison most of what had appeared in their election manifesto, notably the promise to abolish student tuition fees. The accession to power also enabled them to live with Tories’ anti-EU and anti-immigration stances.
Thus it is love – love of power – that has kept the Coalition together so far.
But this took a battering a year ago when the Libs most cherished political target – proportional representation (aka a permanent role in government for Lib Dems) – went down in the referendum attacked by their Coalition partners. By way of compensation, Cameron offered the chance to Clegg of ensuring his place in history by heading up reform of the House of Lords.
Since all three political parties had advocated this reform in their manifestos it would be a straightforward matter, ideally suited for Clegg since he has a great deal of time on his hands.
The only problem was actually finding time for parliament to discuss proposed changes. In practice, this has rarely been an issue. Back in 1946 parliament introduced a system of guillotining which restricted the time spent in discussion of contentious bills. For the first fifty years only 67 bills were guillotined but in the first six years alone of Tony Blair’s reign it happened to 94 bills.
On July 10, 2012, Nick Clegg thus wanted to win two votes. The first was acceptance of the principle of House of Lords’ reform. This sailed through with Labour support though nearly 100 Tories voted against, Cameron’s worst backbench rebellion since he came to power. The second motion seeking the guillotine was the key one since opponents could kill the bill merely by filibuster (and at the same time wreck all other parliamentary business).
After careful research by the Tory and Lib Dem whips, Cameron ducked out. The whips discovered Tory resistance was so extensive and resolute that defeat was inevitable so he simply didn’t bother to seek the second vote.
The Lib Dems were hopping mad. In the past couple of years their support for the Tories has seen them almost wiped out as a political party in the country with their leader, Nick Clegg, singled out for the most vicious of attacks. Above all there is the single issue of student tuition fees which the Lib Dems promised to scrap but which they helped the Coalition to increase three-fold. This has not been forgotten or forgiven. In most people’s eyes, they have achieved nothing other than keeping an unpopular government in power.
Now the Tories’ attitude towards them is changing and becoming publicly obvious. They blame Lib Dems for not supporting Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, over the sale of BSkyB to the Murdochs. They are now infuriated by the threat that if the Tories didn’t push wholeheartedly for Lords’ reform, the Lib Dems would block David Cameron’s constituency boundary re-organisation which reduces the number of MPs from 650 to 600. It is calculated that his measure will hand the Tories an extra 20 seats.
At a rough guess about a third of Conservative MPs would happily ditch the Coalition and most Lib Dems would agree with them. However, the parties are joined at the hip with each of them fearing a wipe-out if they can’t – somehow – wrest back control of the economy and establish their individualities in the three years that remain before they must go to the country.
The trouble is that the economy refuses to behave and respond as they want. If anything, things are getting worse despite all the pain that is being inflicted on a patient electorate. The Coalition endlessly blames Gordon Brown and Tony Blair for the country’s economic travails which it hopes will screen their own political infighting.
The latest scandal concerns Barclay’s Bank rigging interest rates – the LIBOR – to increase their profits during the financial crisis which started in 2008. Cameron and Labour leader, Ed Miliband, clashed over what sort of inquiry they wanted. Cameron using his built-in majority secured a parliamentary inquiry. George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is confident that what will emerge is evidence of the last government’s collusion with the banks in some sort of illegal activity. Noisy scenes in the Commons culminated in Osborne accusing Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, of leaning on the banks using the Bank of England.
However, it looks as though there is no evidence that Osborne’s charge has any truth in it: appearing before a Commons committee, Paul Tucker, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England denied this happened. It has probably cost him his chances of ever being Governor of the Bank of England!
Balls called for an apology. Osborne refused, convinced that something will emerge.
This is the sort of fractiousness that has crept into the House of Commons. Happily, they have all gone off now for the summer holidays so there is at least a temporary lull in hostilities.
Do not expect the truce to hold. Everybody is at everybody else’s throats.