Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Coalition will not last five years

In last week's column, I suggested that the key strategic task facing the Liberal Democrats as they gather for their spring conference in Gateshead was to find a way of winning back the support that has deserted them since they joined the Coalition in 2010.

And doubtless there will be plenty of ideas floating back and forth at The Sage this weekend as to exactly how they should go about it.

They could, as some argue, stop the Health and Social Care Bill in its tracks. The Guardian commentator Polly Toynbee is among those warning this week that if they don’t take what may be their last opportunity to do this, it will seal their fate as a party.

Or they could, as Business Secretary Vince Cable has suggested, use their influence to help shape next month’s Budget, taking everyone earning less than £10,000 a year out of tax and introducing a ‘mansion tax’ for the super-rich.

Their leader, Nick Clegg, certainly wants to see the party getting on the front foot and proclaiming its successes in the Coalition rather than apologising for being part of it.

“Now it is time to move on. To stop justifying being in government and start advertising being in government. To stop lamenting what might have been and start celebrating what is. To stop defending our decisions and start shouting our achievements from the rooftops,” he said yesterday.

But whichever way they turn, will it make the slightest difference to the party’s electoral prospects?

Well, if history is any guide, no. The plain facts of the matter are that involvement in a Coalition is almost always disastrous for the smaller party, whatever political achievements it manages to extract from it.

The most recent example was the Lib-Lab pact in 1977/78. This was perhaps the most enlightened and humane period of government in my lifetime, but it still ended up doing the then Liberal Party terrible damage.

Far from emerging strengthened, their vote went down at the subsequent general election in 1979 and several of their most high-profile MPs, including the deputy leader John Pardoe, lost their seats.

Further back, the 'National Liberals' who joined the Tory-dominated National Government in the 1930s ended up simply becoming absorbed by the larger party.

And David Lloyd George’s 1916-22 Coalition, in which the Tories also held a numerical majority, likewise ended disastrously for the Liberals and their leader despite victory in the First World War.

It is partly for this reason that I have argued from the outset of the Coalition that, while the Lib Dems probably had no choice but to join it, they also needed to find a way of getting out of it alive – preferably well before the next election is due.

The Health and Social Care Bill, on which the Lib Dem rebels are more in tune with public opinion than the government is, would have given them a plausible pretext, although the party activists’ last-ditch bid to halt the Bill now looks unlikely to succeed.

Europe, by contrast, would not be a good reason for the Lib Dems to try to collapse the Coalition, for the simple reason that on this issue, it is the Tories who are much closer to the mainstream public view.

One less widely-canvassed possibility is House of Lords reform – not the sexiest of issues, for sure, but one on which the Tory ‘backwoodsmen’ seem almost certain to thwart Mr Clegg’s well-meaning attempts to drag the British Constitution into the 21st century.

The last time I discussed the possibility of the Coalition ending before its due-date of 2015, a commenter on my blog reminded me that the government has already passed legislation to bring in five-year fixed-term Parliaments.

My view, however, is that this could turn out to be no more than a quaint constitutional notion, given that the legislation also allows for a two-thirds majority of MPs to dissolve Parliament ahead of its term.

Let’s just suppose that David Cameron decides he wants an election. Would Labour MPs, in such circumstances, really vote to keep him in office until 2015?

It stands to reason that the Coalition will not last five years. It will, rather, last just as long as both of its partners want it to.

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