Saturday, May 22, 2010

Is this what Cameron wanted all along?

Two things are holding the new Lib-Con coalition government together. The first is liberalism, economic and social. The second is a mutual loathing New Labour and all its works. Here's today's Journal column.

Last week, I suggested that the enthusiasm with which Prime Minister David Cameron has embraced his new Liberal Democrat partners hinted that coalition might have been the election outcome he wanted all along.

If I’m totally honest, I don’t think there is any ‘might’ about it. As several other commentators have remarked over the past week, Mr Cameron is clearly more at ease with his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg than he is with most of his own backbenchers.

Had he succeeded in gaining a narrow overall majority on 6 May, Mr Cameron would now be at the mercy of a bunch of hardline right-wingers, much in the way that John Major was throughout the 1992 Parliament.

As it is, he can now safely tell them to get stuffed in the knowledge that the Lib Dems’ 57 MPs give his government a near-unassailable parliamentary majority – unless of course, they themselves rebel.

There is no sign of that happening at the moment. Granted, Business Secretary Vince Cable looks less than chuffed to be playing second fiddle to Chancellor George Osborne, and well he might in view of the latter’s relative lack of economic expertise.

But that apart, there seems to be a remarkable degree of cohesion between the two sides over the coalition agreement that was finally published in its full, 34-page format this week.

Some critics have said the coalition is merely held together by the desire for power, but for me that is way too simplistic.

I think the glue that is holding it together, for the time being at any rate, is rather a mutual loathing of what New Labour perpetrated in office, coupled with a mutual determination to address those perceived mistakes.

The economy is the most obvious example. Whatever their differences during the campaign, there is general agreement between them that deficit reduction is the coalition’s No 1 priority.

The new government’s unfolding narrative in this area is essentially that the previous administration had been spending far too much and it is this one’s job to balance the books.

The revelation that former chief treasury secretary Liam Byrne had left a note in his drawer saying “sorry, there is no more money” has hardly helped Labour’s cause in this regard.

That said, his Lib Dem successor David Laws appeared to have suffered something of a humour collapse in his account of the discovery of the infamous document.

Or take civil liberties. Here too the narrative is already clear – that Labour came close to turning us into a ‘surveillance society’ and it is the coalition’s task to unpick that.

Doubtless Labour was dealt a difficult hand in having terrorist outrages like 7/7 happen on its watch, but its response to those terrible events is increasingly seen as having been too authoritarian.

Some past Conservative leaders have also had a distinctly authoritarian tendency – and some of those right-wing backbenchers still do – but Mr Cameron’s own worldview is very different.

The Prime Minister is, and always has been, a liberal Conservative. Hardly surprising then that he should have described his government as such on its first full day in office.

In embracing partnership politics to such an extent, it is tempting to think Mr Cameron might be paying heed to a lesson from history.

Before the 1997 election, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown held extensive discussions about a coalition, but the sheer size of Labour’s majority eventually rendered the idea untenable.

Mr Cameron was dealt a rather different hand on 6 May – but has actually managed to turn a perceived setback into an opportunity.

If the new Prime Minister is already showing a determination to learn from the mistakes of previous ones, then that can only be an encouraging sign.

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Ted Foan said...

I think you might be saying that David Cameron is likely to turn out to be a rather shrewder politician than most believed he might be?

Anonymous said...

"That said, his Lib Dem successor David Laws appeared to have suffered something of a humour collapse in his account of the discovery of the infamous document."

I think I would have suffered a similar failure. It may have been meant as a joke, but unfortunately it is also, as we are now finding out, very much the reality - and a far from funny reality at that.

It's interesting you talk about New Labour being "loathed" by both parties - that begs the obvious question, what on earth were Hain, Adonis and Balls thinking of when they proposed tactical voting? Were they really not up to speed with new political reality - or has it changed in the last few weeks?