Saturday, August 14, 2010

The coalition will collapse long before any lasting realignment of the right

A FEW weeks back, I wrote about the new government's attempts to construct a new political narrative in which the blame for the forthcoming spending cuts is laid firmly at Labour's door.

Any casual observer of the political scene might be tempted to regard this as the kind of routine knockabout that is only to be expected in our adversarial system.

But make no mistake, the coalition's concerted efforts to rubbish the reputation of Gordon Brown and his government is no mere idle politicking.

It is rather, absolutely crucial to the longer-term survival of David Cameron's Con-Lib administration.

For now, the political honeymoon that the coalition has enjoyed since Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg tied the knot in the Downing Street rose garden in May continues moreorless unabated.

But surely not for long. The cuts will soon be coming thick and fast, and the flak will then be flying equally fast in the government's direction.

Hence the coalition's determination to deflect the coming opprobrium by building as broad a consensus as possible that Labour's mismanagement of the economy is to blame.

This week's "Labour legacy love-in" between Lib Dem Energy secretary Chris Huhne and Tory chairman Baroness Warsi was but the latest phase in the strategy, and we are promised more to come.

As I have also previously noted, the government is in serious danger of over-egging the pudding here.

The voters are no fools, and if the coalition is seen to be protesting too much about the previous government's record, they are all the more likely to smell a rat.

Very little of it washes with me, I'm afraid. The Lib-Cons are choosing to go faster than Labour did in cutting the deficit not because there is no alternative, but because they hold a different economic viewpoint.

Mr Huhne in particular sounded very unconvincing at Wednesday's joint briefing, which is hardly surprising given that before the election, he shared Labour's critique of the Tories' planned austerity measures.

But for me, the really interesting thing about the Huhne-Warsi press conference was not what it says about the past but what it could signify for the future.

Inevitably, it sparked speculation that the coalition partners could agree not to fight eachother at the next election, which Lady Warsi hardly discouraged by failing to give a straight answer to a straight question about it.

Talk of a 'coupon election' - LibCons v the rest – is surely wildly premature, but it wouldn't be the first time that coalitions have led to more lasting political realignments.

Back in the 30s, the 'National Liberals' were ultimately absorbed into the Conservative Party after joining the Tory-dominated national government that ruled the country from 1931 to 1945.

So could this present-day coalition ultimately lead to the formation of a new, centre-right grouping, further marginalising the Tory right and reducing the Lib Dems to a social democratic rump?

You can see why a centrist Conservative like Mr Cameron and a right-leaning Lib Dem like Mr Clegg would be comfortable with such a scenario.

But the problem is that both the Tory right and the Liberal Democrat centre-left have a compelling interest in seeing the coalition collapse long before the two parties get anywhere near that point.

For that reason, it remains my view that, sooner or later, one or other of them will ensure that it does.

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Anonymous said...

So you're saying that it was not the Labour party that brought a thriving economy to its knees then - in some strange fairytale it's all the Tories fault?

Strange world you live in Paul, and one the rest of us do not choose to inhabit.

Paul Linford said...

I am saying that there was/is a genuine difference of opinion between Labour and the Tories over how fast to cut the deficit. Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, for fairly sound economic reasons, believed that to cut too deep, too fast, would endanger the fragile recovery. The Tories , and eventually the Lib Dems, chose to ignore that risk. We will see, in time, who turned out to be right.