Thursday, 27 May 2010

Capital gains and badger culls: the competitive politics of Coalition rebellion

Presumably the central organising principle of the Coalition government must be that the two frontbenches will make every effort to protect significant and politically sensitive commitments hammered out in the Coalition Agreement itself against pressure from their backbench MPs.

David Cameron, having backed away from his first bruising encounter with his backbenchers, is paying lip service to being in listening mode as Tory Big Beasts David Davis and John Redwood choose the touchstone issue of lower taxes as the first chance to seriously test the Coalition's cohesion. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable will no doubt already have David Cameron's private assurance that he will stick to the essentials of the agreement, but the Tory Right will believe it has put down an important marker for the future.

Capital Gains Tax is a very significant symbolic issue, as it speaks to the freedom v fairness tension between right-of-centre and left-of-centre instincts which remain at the centre-of-gravity of the two parties, which the Coalition agreement claims to have happily reconciled (with responsibility providing the icing on the motherhood and apple pie).

The Conservatives are keen to stress how much they like the 'tax freedom' messages of an increased income tax threshold, yet the (contested) LibDem claim that this represents 'tax fairness' too becomes ever more threadbare the more that the right seeks to oppose those progressive tax raising measures to pay for it which were not already sacrificed in the Coalition agreeement.

The principle that capital gains should be taxed at a similar rate to income is a clear and strong one, though it is opposed who believe we pretty much always live at a point on the Laffer Curve where cutting tax rates will pretty much always happily increase revenues.

So perhaps this is the apposite moment for a counter-rebellion from the yellow side.

Arise Adrian Sanders, MP for Torbay. The Liberal Democrat deputy Chief Whip no less has condemned another part of the Coalition Agreement as something the public will find "appalling" and a terrible "waste of public money", as reported by the lively and informative blog of Matt Chorley of the Western Morning News.

This raises the interesting question of exactly how Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander (perhaps just after happily endorsing "") found the time to agree that culling badgers should definitely be part of the new politics too, as they discovered that this was a manifesto pledge they had in common,

Hence the Coalition declaration:

"As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis.”

The New Politics: bad news for badgers!


I suspect the Liberal Democrat backbenchers and party members will mostly be considerably better behaved within the Coalition than the Conservatives. They believe in the value of power-sharing in politics and, in the final reckoning, they are as a party rather more existentially invested in the success of the Coalition.

After eighty years out of power at Westminster, the LibDems are very aware of the need to show that they can cope with the realities and compromises of office. By contrast, a large number of Conservatives appear to feel that the party civil war of 1992-97 was so long ago that there is little or nothing to be learnt from it.

And there is method in the vocal advocacy of the Tory right. The right's analysis is that the LibDems got too much in the Coalition deal, as they skilfully exploited the uncertainty about their intentions between rival suitors, and that Nick Clegg may well have the veto power within Cabinet Committees.

Unless, that is, the Tory right can credibly claim to have a bloc of at least sixty potential troublemakers on the Tory backbenches, who will define themselves not as irreconciliables, but as only contingent supporters and constructive critics to the Coalition's right. The claim is that as much work needs to be done to keep the Tory right on board as a Liberal Democrat party of broadly equivalent Commons strength. 118 votes against David Cameron over the 1922 Committee may become an important symbol that the threat may not be an idle one even if this assertive right-wing bloc may lack any credible nuclear option. (After all, their Parliamentary power depends on challenging the Coalition on an issue where the Tory right can make common cause with Labour and minor parties, in a House which may often have an issue-based centre-left majority while sustaining a centre-right government).

And the more constructive of these Tory critics will claim that they are simply using their voice and power to strengthen the negotiating position of the leader of the larger party against his junior partner).

If this is how it is going to be, David Cameron must be grateful that he can draw on his very useful experience as a special adviser to the John Major government.

So we can largely expect there to be more competitive leaking by Ministers, pressure from backbenchers and agitiation from the party in the country from the Coalition's right than its liberal-left. If the LibDems do not reciprocate at all, the balance of Coalition power will consistently shift away from them every week since the ink dried on the deal. But their political judgement in how far they too can rock the Coalition boat without endangering "the project" may be a rather delicate one.


John H said...

My assumption from the start has been that the coalition agreement itself would represent the high-point of Liberal power within the coalition.

Now the dynamics identified in your post (together with the simple fact of Tory numerical supremacy within the coalition) mean that those issues not decisively closed off in the agreement will tend to be decided by the Tories in their own favour, and even those items that are dealt with in an apparently decisive way in the agreement will be pulled in a more "Tory" direction in their implementation, especially where being implemented by a Tory cabinet minister (or by David Laws, which amounts to the same thing...).

To which end it's instructive to note the way in which the CGT wording shifted between the original and final versions of the coalition agreement, in a direction which allows a far less significant change in actual tax rates.

Rob said...

The thing is, the Tory back benchers will only rebel when the coalition tries to do something fairly relatively left-wing, at which point we can presumably expect Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green to vote with the government against the right-wing Tory back benchers. The Tory back benchers have only just noticed that they hold almost no power whatsoever to stop these things - expect them to get increasingly irate as this sinks in.