Coalition… To bend or to break?
As Parliament winds up for the summer recess, it seems a perfect opportunity to analyse the position that the coalition currently find themselves in and where they may go from here.
Back in May 2010 when the coalition agreement was signed both parties made a united front. Messrs Cameron and Clegg were determined that despite their party’s differences they could form a working and successful coalition government.
The first year in this marriage of the unlikely couple was a rather rosy one. Of course there were minor blips along the way, (there always are in government) but overall the first year could be determined a success. The country of course faced issues surrounding it’s finances, however many of the budget cuts proposed by the government were not felt until after the first year had passed, meaning that aside from a rather clear ‘No’ to the proposed change in the Westminster voting system meant the partners could continue in government with little issue to divide them.
In this first year it helped that the Labour Party were in almost total disarray, a leadership contest that was eventually won by a candidate that many deemed to be the wrong candidate left the party that had held power for 13 years in a dreadful situation.
However, now at the end of the coalition’s second year, there are murmurs that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are bound to split before the next planned election in 2015. So what’s gone wrong between the two parties that could see our first peace-time coalition in the UK end 3 prematurely?
Firstly, one of the main issues that neither party can control is the seemingly never improving financial situation. While the coalition does all it can to ease the strains on the UK purse strings, the public have begun to grumble over the cuts being made and lack of jobs available. While this may not be the issue that drives the coalition partners apart, the low level of public opinion will certainly not help Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg form stronger bonds.
While the financial situation in the UK, the EU and around the world may be outside of the government’s control, a number of policies over recent months may have begun to divide more than even poor public opinion could. The Health and Social Care bill for example, which will change the shape of the NHS forever, was a bill that many Liberal Democrats will have been opposed to, but were forced to back for the sake of the government. In addition, the problems around Jeremy Hunt and the BSkyB bid, as well as Theresa May and her issues with extradition dates have seen the Tories lacking a little discipline in recent months.
So why did Lib Dem MPs have back the bill and put up with problems in the Tory side of government? It’s a simple answer. While they would have done so with heavy hearts, they would have been able to console themselves in the knowledge that something as important to their party as Lords Reform was just around the corner…
But is that any longer the case? The proposals put forward by Clegg to change the format of the second chamber look almost certain to be scrapped, but will a revised deal with little reform be enough to ensure the coalition’s future?
One thing that seems certain, in the wake of AV being turned down in a referendum last year; Nick Clegg is sure to stand firm on his proposals for the House of Lords. While his hand was forced last year in a referendum over AV, his firmly held belief that Lords Reform is necessary to ensure ‘a fairer and more democratic system’ in the UK could cause more than a minor problem between himself and Mr Cameron. Many believe that while the Prime Minister has now promised to ‘look again’ at the reforms, he may only be willing to offer the deputy PM a bit-part programme of reform that will not please many Liberal Democrats. In a recent interview with the BBC’s political correspondent Nick Robinson, Liberal Democrat MP David Laws said that: “My colleagues in the Lib Dem party will say, ‘Look if the Conservatives are not keeping their promises to us why should we keep our promises to them.’ So that’s very dangerous.” This declaration from a backbench Lib Dem member shows the growing frustrations from the smaller coalition partners as they continue to follow the Conservative-led government. Could the House of Lords reform defeat be the rather hefty straw that breaks the coalition-camel’s back?
David Cameron certainly seemed to see the issue with the biggest ever Tory-rebellion as problematic. After Tuesday night’s vote he was seen ‘shouting and finger-wagging’ at backbencher Jesse Norman after he’d voted against the government’s proposals, something Labour leader Ed Milliband was more than happy to refer to in the last Prime Minister’s Questions of the session.
Milliband may be the final reason why we see the coalition struggling at the current time. While a year ago many considered him useless and unable to hold the government to account effectively, as the coalition has begun to see struggles he has begun to thrive. Enjoying the position of being in opposition and beginning to perfect the ability to mock the government (something David Cameron was a master at), Milliband has gained ground in the minds of the electorate over the past few weeks.
However, while the government may continue to struggle and all opinion polls show a Labour victory would be almost certain in an immediately called election there are many that still doubt Milliband’s credentials as a statesman and potential PM.
With Milliband’s growing reputation, the problems facing the coalition over recent months culminating in the House of Lords proposals being defeated, perhaps the chance to rethink their position and renegotiate areas in which they are currently at odds means this summer recess has come at the perfect time for the government. There is one thing for sure, if Cameron and Clegg are to keep their parties together there will need to be serious consideration around the direction they now take following their most recent knock-back.