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Irreconcilable differences

Both parties are coming to the conclusion that the coalition cannot last

25 February 2012

3:00 PM

25 February 2012

3:00 PM

It has become clear over the last few weeks that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the coalition. Once, the rows between Tories and Lib Dems used to be about peripheral issues, but they are now about the central planks of government policy. In happier times, disputes used to lead to better policy-making; now they result in crude horse-trading. The coalition used to be underpinned by trust between the central players in each party. That trust is now breaking down and there is a growing feeling that the coalition cannot go the distance until 2015. One Downing Street adviser told me this week, with a fatalistic air, that a ‘2014 election wouldn’t be too bad really. David would have done his best, Nick would have done his best. But they just couldn’t make it work any more.’

This language, the language of failed relationships, is revealing. For all the attempts to discuss it in businesslike terms, the coalition has always been a little like a marriage. At the beginning, it felt like a whirlwind romance. The two sides suddenly discovered that they weren’t that different after all, that they might be compatible. They began to dream of a new life together free from the constraints of their respective families. There were a number of influential Tories and Lib Dems who wanted ‘coalition forever’. Now the end is in sight.

The high command aren’t even sure they can make it to the next election. What used to be unsayable, that the coalition might not last until 2015, is being openly discussed. Senior Conservatives are giving increasing thought to what they would do if they were left running a minority government. Some even want a programme for a minority government to be drawn up so that the party is prepared for this eventuality.

It is not only the Tories who are contemplating the break-up of the coalition. The Liberal Democrat leadership has also thought through what to do if it came to the crunch. But they seem a little more confident that the coalition will last until the next election. It does, though, say something about the mood inside the government that strategists in both parties are devoting considerable time recently to thinking about what would happen if it does end early. To be sure, no one thinks the coalition is in danger of an imminent collapse. Something, though, has changed. It is telling that George Osborne, with his finely calibrated political antennae, is increasingly concerned that the Liberal Democrats could walk out as early as the start of 2014. Others in Downing Street fret that the Lib Dem moment of departure could be as early as next year.

Last Monday night, when Cameron and Osborne had dinner in the Downing Street flat with their Lib Dem opposite numbers Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, the atmosphere was, by all accounts, cordial. But this cordiality doesn’t extend down the ranks. As one senior Cameron aide puts it, ‘the clear-the-air talks are becoming ever more frequent. At the end of them, we all say—glad that’s sorted. But we all know it’s not true and we’ll be having the same conversation in a fortnight’s time.’

Stoking this ill-feeling is the Liberal Democrats’ public negotiating strategy. Nick Clegg’s office has decided that it is imperative they show the public that they are fighting their corner in government, standing up for what they believe in. But to the Tories this is an immature way to do business. They complain that the Liberal Democrats’ megaphone diplomacy forces everyone to take public positions early and makes compromise impossible, turning coalition into a zero-sum game.

The Liberal Democrats are unapologetic about their new approach. For the first time in ages, they are enjoying themselves. It is as though the more they wind up the Tories, the more fun they have. They boast that they are making all the intellectual running on the Budget with their plans to cut taxes for low-paid workers by raising taxes on affluent savers. One senior Liberal Democrat remarks that this ‘might be the tail wagging the dog. But at least somebody is wagging something’.

This pre-Budget briefing is a particular source of Tory irritation. After all the leaks that surrounded last year’s autumn statement, the Tories secured an agreement to limit the number of people able to attend the most important meetings. This has been adhered to. But the Liberal Democrats are, to Downing Street’s fury, still using those known to be close to Clegg to make their Budget case.

For their part, Tory ministers are chafing at the restrictions of coalition. Allies of Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, were behind a recent effort to get Sarah Teather, a Lib Dem minister of state, sacked for her failure to vote for the welfare reform bill. Relations between IDS and Teather soured in a series of rows over family policy and have never recovered.

But these stresses are mild compared to what House of Lords reform will do to the coalition. The Liberal Democrats have recently issued a new threat: unless Lords’ reform is pushed through, they won’t vote for the boundary changes that the Cameroons have convinced themselves are crucial to their chances of winning the next election. So despite the fact that the original coalition deal was a boundary review in exchange for a referendum on electoral reform, a Lords reform bill will be in the Queen’s Speech.

Cameron has tried to make the best of this situation, giving the bill a push in Cabinet. Even those of his ministers who are strongly opposed to an elected second chamber have agreed to go along with this legislation despite their misgivings. But, as the saying has it, coalitions rot from the bottom up, not the top down.

Although it is clear that rejecting Lords reform could break the coalition, many Tories are rebelling anyway. There is an organised resistance to the bill which is drawing support from across the parliamentary party. The ringleaders are confident that they ‘already have more than 81 signed up to the cause’. They are currently considering how best to make their views — and numbers — known to Downing Street.

Worryingly for the coalition, this rebellion draws heavily on the talents of the 2010 intake of MPs: it will not be possible to dismiss it as just the usual suspects or a bunch of dinosaurs. One involved says, ‘This is a more diverse group than any of the Europe rebellions.’ There are many things behind this opposition to House of Lords reform. But time and time again, one hears the refrain that ‘We can’t hand the Liberal Democrats the balance of power in the second chamber forever.’ The rebels feel they owe it to generations of Conservatives unborn to oppose a Lords elected by PR.

One new MP who has never yet rebelled and has been marked out for advancement by No. 10 nevertheless plans to rebel. She says, ‘we’ll be quiet. We’ll be sensible. But we are immovable.’ Indeed, the rebels appear reconciled to the effect their actions could have on the coalition.

Of course, a Tory rebellion would not stop Lords reform if Labour MPs voted for it. But this is looking increasingly unlikely. One Labour member of the joint committee on the draft bill says, ‘it should be a natural area of co-operation. But the relationship between us is just too poisonous for that.’ Those close to Miliband say that the deputy Prime Minister has ‘been reaching out’ to Labour’s leaders. But they do not seem very interested in accepting the outstretched hand. Faced with a choice between constitutional reform and giving Clegg a kicking, Labour is lacing up its hobnail boots.

In that case, even if only half the Tory rebels stick to their guns, Lords reform will be defeated. This will pose major problems for the coalition. One Clegg ally stresses that &#
8216;if it came to the point that our Conservative partners couldn’t control their own parliamentary party to get things through then we’d be in deep water. It would be very damaging to the coalition.’

Having sent their own MPs through the lobbies to vote for tuition fees and the like, the Liberal Democrats are not inclined to accept that there are some things Cameron can’t get his MPs to do. They harbour deep suspicions that any substantial Tory rebellion on Lords reform would have to have been given the wink by Downing Street. As one minister close to Clegg puts it, ‘Ever since the AV referendum the bonds of trust that the coalition was based on have been shattered. The Tories are now paying the price for that.’

Those who know Clegg’s mind on the matter say that a defeat on Lords reform would ‘demonstrate bad leadership or bad faith’ on Cameron’s part. An irresistible force, the Lib Dem belief that they are entitled to Lords reform under the coalition agreement, is about to meet an immovable object, Tory backbench opposition to it.

But it is not just Lords reform that threatens to strain coalition relations even further. Everywhere you look there are issues coming up that will pit the two sides against each other. In 2014 the government will have to decide whether or not to opt in or out of EU agreements on crime and policing: 102 Tory MPs have already written to Cameron urging him to repatriate these powers. But at the last election the Liberal Democrats argued that the only people who would benefit from Britain quitting these agreements would be paedophiles and gangsters. On the pattern of the coalition so far, Cameron will—at the last possible moment—side with his own party on this issue. But how would the Liberal Democrats, with the election in sight, react to that?

If a week is a long time in politics, two and a half years is an eternity. But now that the coalition partners are thinking about separation, it will prove that bit more difficult to keep this relationship on the road. 

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