Moments of Light and Dark

It destroyed his career, you know.

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.


3 thoughts on “Moments of Light and Dark

  1. Hey there Dan,

    ‘The Tories have long experience in government, and in the dark arts. The Liberal Democrats, it would be fair to say, do not’

    There is some truth in that and I am a little conerned. Obviously, the libs have secured fixed term parliments to stop the Tories from calling an election if they felt they could get a majority. I certainly don’t hold te same oppposition to the coalition other Lib Dem supporters may hold as my latest blog points out but it’s going to be a difficult thing to hold together.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the Labour party fairs in opposition with it’s eventual new leader?


  2. Sebastian – The details of the fixed term Parliament agreement mean that the Conservatives can dissolve parliament and call an election at any time, but the Lib Dems can’t win a no-confidence vote without the Conservative’s consent. They have been outsmarted.

  3. danhartland says:

    Sebastian – as Alison says, the 55% majority needed to win a vote of no confidence means that, were the Lib Dems to leave the coalition, their votes combined with each and every non-Tory in the Commons would not be enough to bring down the government. If the Tories wished to trigger an election, they need find only 51 votes.

    The full text of the agreement makes clear that there are major disagreements – but that where they exist, the Lib Dems were merely be permitted to abstain. Therfore, the Tory policy will pass. Likewise, the apparent adoption of some Lib Dem policies find their tenor in the details.

    All that said, the agreement seems promising on the civil liberties front at the very least, and certainly it is a more centrist programme than may have been forced on a Cameron government with a small majority. On which note, Jonathan Freedland has a conspiracy theory.

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