In the 1980s, Spitting Image depicted Liberal leader David Steel as a tiny non-entity kept snugly in the pocket of the charismatic SDP leader, David Owen. In 2010, both Kevin Maguire and, more unexpectedly, Jonathan Freedland have already characterised Nick Clegg as David Cameron’s fag. Easy phrase, of course, given that so far the Tory-Lib Dem Cabinet is the most male, most public school, and most Oxbridge group of patrician governors we have seen in many a long year. But Clegg will want t0 confound these expectations – hence his immediate return of Cameron’s power gestures this morning during his slightly dazzled appearance on the steps of Downing Street.
It’s worth pausing and congratulating both Clegg and Cameron: to reach government in one bound since 2005 is a great achievement for both men. This coalition is an historic coming together, and a victory of sorts for anti-Tories. It is, though, one fraught with ambiguity and danger. As Sunder Katwala points out, Cameronism has always been a masterclass in not committing to a great deal. What he doesn’t say, but that again Freedland does, is that the Liberal Democrat brand has also walked a careful line: traditionally a holier-than-thou one, all clean hands and studied neutrality.
No longer. Cameron and Clegg have no time to bask in the glory of their achivement: now they must allow themselves to define, and tar, each other. The coalition is a remarkable hugging-close; there will be no escape for either man. Good things may well be done in the coming months – but what will be the holistic view, and will Clegg’s DPM Without Portfolio position provide enough control of the government’s broad messaging to keep the story centrist?
It may be. The effect of this embrace will be to free both Cameron and Clegg from the fringes of their parties: this government has a working majority of 82, a healthy buffer which allows Cameron to disregard his right and Clegg his left. And yet lose both and the coalition will fall; the question thus becomes where the centre of gravity will lie – which leader will be dragged more in the direction of the other. The movement of the Liberal Democrats under Clegg has been clear for some time. There is also the startling fact that it seems fully a third of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party will sit in government, either at the Cabinet level or as junior ministers. There will be little chance to maintain a distinct identity in this, and questions remain on whether Liberal Democrats have ensured that the agreement will not diminish their exposure in the media (neutrality regulations will now surely demand the exclusion, rather than inclusion, of Liberal Democrats where a Tory is also present), have addressed issues of collective responsibility and by-elections, or secured real control rather than oversight of ongoing and clearly defined policy decisions.
The Tories have long experience in government, and in the dark arts. The Liberal Democrats, it would be fair to say, do not. They risk being eaten up and spat out. We await the coalition agreement to be published in full – that may offer clues. But few voters will forgive cutting support for children in exchange for an elected Lords. The Guardian’s leader today begins to back-track on its election support for the Liberal Democrats, maintaining a cautious line on the coalition but emphasising that the Liberal Democrats actively chose the Tories; they may well have been right to do so (though a confidence and supply arrangement may in the long-term have proven wiser), and certainly there were many Labour voices against the unstable rainbow coalition. They did so on the basis of two concerns: that the electorate would not look kindly upon it, and that those for whom the Labour party was established (the clue is in the name) have never been, are not now, represented by a Liberal party of any stripe. Given the apparent make-up of that putative coalition Cabinet, they were not so very wrong.