Saturday, January 01, 2011

Why 2011 is the Coalition's make-or-break year

Two weeks ago I concluded my review of the political year 2010 by posing a question which will, in my view, determine how the next 12 months in British politics ultimately pan out.

It was: can the Coalition government as a whole withstand the dramatic loss in popularity suffered by the Liberal Democrats since their decision to go into partnership with David Cameron’s Tories.

As Ricky Ponting can no doubt testify, a team is only as good as its weakest link, and with public support for the Lib Dems now barely registering in double figures, Nick Clegg’s party are clearly the weakest link in this government.

The big question for Mr Clegg is how much lower he can afford to allow that support to drop before continuing membership of the Coalition simply becomes politically unsustainable.

If any further proof were needed of the Coalition’s inherent instability, then the Vince Cable affair in the run-up to Christmas surely provided it.

There were several ironies about this episode, not least that a newspaper which shared Dr Cable’s hostility to Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB managed to shoot itself so comprehensively in the foot.

But surely the biggest irony of all is that, for all the humiliation he heaped upon himself, Dr Cable turned out to be correct in his estimation that he was, in effect, unsackable.

Whatever you think of the methods used to ‘entrap’ him, any other minister who displayed such appalling naivety and lack of judgement would surely have been out of the door.

But because Mr Cameron dare not weaken the Lib Dem element of the Coalition for fear that the whole edifice will collapse, he survived - thought not without having his wings severely clipped.

So much for the events of the week before Christmas. What of the year ahead?

Well, since this is traditionally the time of year for crystal ball gazing, I’ll make a prediction. If the Coalition gets through the next 12 months, it will more than likely achieve its ambition of serving a full five-year parliamentary term.

Why is 2011 likely to prove the Coalition’s make-or-break year? Well, for starters, it is likely to become significantly more unpopular as the cuts bite, unemployment continues to rise, and the full implications of some of its more radical experiments become clear.

I have in mind here Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms and Michael Gove’s de-municipalisation of schools, neither of which can claim much of a popular mandate.

But the biggest single threat to the Coalition’s survival is the time-bomb that is due to detonate underneath it on Thursday 5 May – the referendum on the alternative voting system.

If, as many now expect, the referendum is lost, it will remove the Lib Dems’ main incentive for having entered the partnership in the first place.

For Labour leader Ed Miliband, too, this will be a critical 12 months, as he seeks to demonstrate to a sceptical public why he, and not his elder brother, is the right man for the job.

At least he now has a clearer opposition strategy, seeking to brand this a Conservative-led government supported by reluctant Liberal Democrats rather than the marriage of true minds Messrs Clegg and Cameron would like to portray.

Yet for all that, Mr Miliband is probably no more keen to bring the government down right now than Dr Cable: his party is broke, he hasn’t had time to overhaul the policies that lost it the last election, and the public doesn’t really know him.

If the Coalition does manage to survive the year, it might simply be because none of the three main parties really wants to have another election just yet.

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1 comment:

Oli Parker said...

Surely your last comment is the most telling Paul; no party really fancies having a crack at the election game at the moment. We are in a sticky situation as a country, and whichever hand is on the tiller of power will be blamed for the approaching storms (and storms there will be; 2011 looks like it will be a nasty year for most, if not all, of the UK population, and blood will be bayed for.)

The coalition is not looking good, agreed. However, to paraphrase someone much brighter than me, the Con-Lib arrangement we have at the moment is the worst possible group to have in power, apart from all the rest. Labour has nothing credible to say and no strong leadership to say it either (and a large amount of blame to shoulder). The Lib Dems on their own were - at election time - a brief (but bright) flash in the pan. The Tories are surely the only sensible party to hold power at the moment, and I wonder whether Call-Me-Dave is ruing the day he signed up to the coalition. Had he formed a minority government back in May, I wonder what things would look like now?