Saturday 28 May 2011

The endgame: why the Coalition won't last to May 2015

Andrew Grice, political editor of the Independent, has a must-read column on the increasingly fractious atmosphere inside the Coalition government.

It includes one of the first public discussions of the discussions inside both parties about how they might try to conduct an amicable divorce, so as to avoid a much more . That is now a political strategy question of fundamental importance to both partners, since the fallout from the AV referendum has finally ended all talk of pacts and deals to seek re-election, making the cover story that it is something they will be thinking about much closer to 2013 highly implausible.

Grice writes:

Holding the Coalition together is suddenly much harder work. It is not coming off the rails. But the new phase has provoked speculation about how and when it will end.

The Tory backbench rumour mill suggests that Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, is dusting down the rules about how a "confidence and supply" arrangement would work. This would mean Liberal Democrat ministers leaving the Government and Mr Clegg's party supporting the Tories in crucial Commons votes in return for an agreement on key policies. Ending the Coalition would not mean an immediate general election. A Bill is going through Parliament that should ensure it takes place in May 2015, which suits both parties.

The Tory grapevine suggests the Coalition could be scaled down to a "confidence and supply" deal a year or even 18 months before the election. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, a symptom of Tories' frustration at the Liberal Democrats calling the shots on health.

Yet Liberal Democrat strategists, who had drafted a "confidence and supply" agreement for either Labour or the Tories before last year's election, admit the idea could be revived for the "decoupling phase" ahead of the next one. On the one hand, it might help their product-differentiation drive. On the other, it might allow the Tories all the credit for a tax-cutting eve-of-election Budget.

"It is an end-game question, a long way down the track," said one Clegg ally.

The Grice thesis chimes with the analysis of polling expert John Curtice, who told an ippr/open democracy discussion immediately after the May elections, that it was difficult to see how the Liberal Democrats could recover politically until they leave the Coalition, making it extremely important that the party sought to find an exit strategy from the government that does not precipitate a General Election.

These are my notes of what Curtice said at that seminar, in which he suggested that, if anything, the scale of the Liberal Democrat "drubbing" had been underestimated.

“It is true that the Liberal Democrats have been in this much trouble before”, said Curtice, citing both the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970s and the post-merger doldrums of the late 1980s.

“How did they get out of it? They got out of the pact. Why did the leave? Because the government didn’t give them what they wanted on electoral reform.

After the merger, how did they get out of trouble? By winning by-elections against an unpopular Tory government. That is not an option available to them at the moment".

So Curtice’s message to the LibDems was “they do need to think seriously about their exit strategy before 2015”.

He did not expect the Coalition to come under immediate pressure, but he thought there was a greater chance of the Liberal Democrats wanting to get out of the Coalition in the winter of 2013/14, particularly if the party could find a way to leave the government without precipitating an immediate general election, which the Conservatives would also prefer to avoid until the new Parliamentary boundaries were in place.

Poor local election results in 2012 and 2013 would in effect wipe out 20-30 years of local government. It was at that stage that Curtice expected there to be much greater internal pressure

It was difficult to see how a stronger economy would assist a LibDem recovery, Curtice suggested. “The fundamental problem for the Liberal Democrats is that the economic strategy they are defending is the Tory economic strategy – so it is very difficult for the Liberal Democrats to claim credit” if it did work.

So each of the Coalition parties are currently entertaining the theory that they would be better off dividing a good way before the short election campaign. But it is less obvious that they can both be right.

The shared problem for each is the threat of a General Election.

The Conservatives are more nervous about the path to a Parliamentary majority than they appear in public - not least because none of their leadership team shared the confidence of the party and its press supporters that it was heading for a clear victory next time. So the Tories would certainly not want an election without the new boundaries. And the reason for the LibDems to not want an earlier general election is, at present, rather more existential.

Hence the return of the idea of "confidence and supply".

But can it work? The conundrum there is how the LibDems would explain that they no longer believe that they should be part of the government, and prepare to campaign against it, while being still responsible for sustaining a Tory government. That could simply cost them the support of those voters who thought they did the right thing in the first place, without winning back the trust of lost LibDems who feel betrayed.

Still, the LibDem case for support if the Coalition lasts right up to a May 2015 campaign is quite difficult to articulate too.

In this endgame scenario, the post-Coalition Liberal Democrats would naturally need new leadership in order to seek to differentiate themselves from their erstwhile partners in government.

That makes it impossible to see how the Liberal Democrats can attempt an amicable divorce without current leader Nick Clegg having previously made his own decision that he would prefer a new challenge on the international stage to defending Sheffield Hallam at the next General Election

Chris Huhne's availability is now in doubt, making Tim Farron the likely frontrunner for a party looking for new direction and leadership.

How to achieve that within 12-18 months is more difficult. So the risk is that the party might do even worse if it seems to be running away from its record in government, rather than running on it, so exacerbating the damage of having been in the government during its most unpopular phase, and then absent when the war-chest is unlocked.

If it looks like a case of 'damned if you do, and damned if you don't' then that conundrum will be causing plenty of headaches among Liberal Democrats at Westminster.

A long time before 2015.

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