Politics and Governance in the UK

Second edition

by Michael Moran

Update 40 – January 2013

The coalition at half term

‘England does not love coalitions’, said the great founder of modern Conservatism, Benjamin Disraeli. But it is learning to live with them. In November 2012 the present Westminster coalition passed the notional mid point of its life. The next general election is still fixed for May 2015, and it will involve a cataclysmic event for something to change that. So we may reasonably expect that the coalition, having lasted since May 2010, it will endure for over two more years. The greatest achievement of the coalition may be simply stated: it has survived. This is less of a back handed compliment than might be at first thought. The coalition has had to manage the greatest economic crisis for at least seventy years, and perhaps the greatest financial crisis of the last century. Views differ on the competence and fairness with which it has gone about the job, but if we compare the previous experiences of managing crises of this magnitude the most obvious difference is that this time the stresses of crisis management have not destroyed the government. The crisis that followed the great crash of 1929 destroyed the Labour Government in 1931, and indeed consigned Labour to Opposition for the rest of the decade. The great wartime crisis of 1940 likewise destroyed Chamberlain's government and produced perhaps the one great successful coalition in British history – that under Churchill, 1940-45.

The coalition has lasted despite the plain existence of powerful tensions within the government. Why is this? There are three reasons. First, there is nothing unusual in the existence of such tension. Personal tensions are common even in single party government. Indeed it is a truism that, at least as far as personal animosity is concerned, politicians are more likely to hate their fellow partisans than their opponents – for the very good reason that their fellow partisans are usually the most immediate rivals for promotion. While there are personal tensions inside the coalition it does not seem to approach anything like the toxic relations that prevailed between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister for much of Mr Blair's period as New Labour Prime Minister. Second, while there are obvious tensions over policy, these too are nothing new. In reality all governments in the UK are coalition governments, in the sense that even single parties are fairly heterogeneous collections of groups, traditions and inclinations. The Liberal Democrats only approximate the modernising, liberalising parts of the Conservative Party. Were Mr Cameron in office alone he would still face the problem of managing a heterogenous coalition; it is just that all the parts of the coalition would have the same 'Conservative' label. Finally, in the short term one partner in the coalition, the Liberal Democrats, has to preserve the coalition, because it has nowhere else to go but oblivion. Polls and by election results suggest that at the moment it has been relegated in Westminster Parliamentary elections to fourth place after the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). In the longer term (ie the general election campaign of 2015) the task of the Liberal Democrats will be to distance themselves from their Conservative partners. Mr Clegg's speech of 17 December 2012 to the CentreForum (for the text, http://www.centreforum.org) is the first systematic attempt to start doing this. The previous attempt to ensure a long term future, by installing the Alternative Vote (see Update for June 2011), was a humiliating failure. Now the Lib Dem leadership must persuade voters that they occupy a true middle ground between Conservative and Labour. This strategy only makes sense if general elections in the future continue to produce hung Parliaments, where the Liberal Democrats can perpetually picture themselves as the middle way between the two giants. The conventional wisdom has been that the first past the post system means that the 2010 result was an aberration: that the electoral system normally produces a clear Westminster majority for one party. But there is nothing mechanical about this. The first past the post system worked in this way when the electorate was mostly divided into two stable nationwide blocks of Labour and Conservative supporters. Consult chapter 17 of PGUK to see how that has changed. It may be, therefore, that in May 2015 Mr Clegg – or his replacement – will be negotiating about jobs and policies with Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband. Or, if you are a Liberal Democrat of a gloomy outlook, you may think that the role will be filled by Mr Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP.