This week marks 50 years since Harold Macmillan’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’, in which he sacked a third of his Cabinet. As if to mark the anniversary, Tory MPs this week sunk the dagger into the Liberal Democrats’ plans for House of Lords reform. So great was the potential defeat — the largest in Tory party history — that the government cancelled its vote on its attempts to place a time limit on debating the Bill. The proposals would have been rejected entirely had it not been for the opportunistic support of the Labour party.
Coalition government was not supposed to be like this. Many of those who welcomed its formation two years ago argued that it would lead to ‘grown-up politics’ — the raucous squabbling of the House of Commons would somehow be replaced by constructive debate. Coalition, it was said, would bring back true Cabinet government and weaken the stranglehold on policy-making exerted by party leaderships, reversing a trend which had been evident since Mrs Thatcher’s day. David Cameron and Nick Clegg would not be able to take their backbenchers for granted. They would be forced to listen more to the views of a wide spectrum of MPs.
The reality could hardly be more different. The effect of coalition has been to concentrate power even more in the hands of a small kitchen cabinet — the only difference being that it is now a cross-party affair, formed of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander. As for ordinary MPs, inconvenient views are treated with more disdain than ever. After two years of such treatment, the disdain is being reciprocated.
Since coalition, the Conservative party’s identity had been subsumed within that of the coalition. The word ‘Conservative’ was not to be seen anywhere at its annual conference. It was as if the need to blend blue with yellow was all that mattered. No longer. The Conservative party is back. The 91 Tories who rebelled against the second reading of the Lords bill extended well beyond the regular dissenters. They included new MPs, men and women who are planning long careers in politics. They can envisage a future without David Cameron in charge.
It is not just the Liberal Democrats who obsess about the constitution. Conservatives care deeply enough to protect it, at the risk of upsetting their leaders. An appointed Lords, they believe, is a barrier against the tyranny of the majority in the Commons. This argument was brilliantly summed up by Nigel Lawson, a former editor of this magazine, when taking evidence from Andrew Mitchell, the international development secretary. Why question the doubling of aid, Mr Mitchell asked, when all parties agree with it? ‘In my experience,’ replied Lord Lawson, ‘when all three parties agree on something it is usually wrong — for a very good reason: it is not properly examined and debated.’
The Lords works in practice, even if it does not work in theory. The reverse is, alas, true for the coalition in the House of Commons. The coalition has become dysfunctional, and the Lib Dems now pride themselves on thwarting whatever policy the Conservatives are pursuing. This sense of disorder has spread to the Tories. The cultivation of internal enemies has been part of David Cameron’s strategy ever since he became Conservative leader. He sees offending the Bufton Tuftons of the backbenches as a way of decontaminating the Tory brand, as if he were re-enacting Tony Blair’s fight with his own party’s dinosaurs over Clause Four.
The difference is, however, that Blair had keener political antennae. Cameron, by contrast, has nearly come to grief several times by failing to calculate the number of MPs he would upset. He should have known that a Conservative leader who loses a loyalist like Nicholas Soames has lost the party.
The incident reflects no better on Nick Clegg. When he entered into the coalition he knew that his party would be the junior partner. Nevertheless, there was a significant overlap in the interests of Tories and Lib Dems, as proven by the radical coalition agreement. If the two parties hunkered down and achieved these goals — school reform, welfare reform and eliminating the deficit over the course of a parliament — then coalition as a model of government would be seen as a success. This was Nick Clegg’s dream: to prove that coalition can work in an adversarial parliament such as Britain’s.
Those who argued against Clegg said that the Lib Dems are an oppositionist party who specialise in throwing stones, not building houses. This now looks to be the case. The Lib Dems are threatening to stop plans to redraw the boundaries of Westminster constituencies. That, too, would be a good outcome. The proposal is a blatant piece of gerrymandering designed to increase the haul of Conservative seats, shamefully dressed up as a cost-cutting measure. Both Conservatives and Lib Dems will be punished at the ballot box if they seek to up their vote by fiddling with the electoral system.
Tory MPs have issued a stern reminder to the government: the party’s responsibility is to revive the economy, not vandalise the constitution. As both Cameron and Clegg found out this week, those long knives are now being wielded on the backbenches.