Alex Massie

A Real Coalition, Not a Sham One

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Mind you, Ed Miliband doesn't understand coalition either. Fair enough. It's not what he's paid to understand. Still, according to Miliband (whom I keep forgetting is actually leader of the Labour party):

Secretly recorded comments by Liberal Democrat ministers show the coalition government is "a sham," Labour leader Ed Miliband has said.

He described Vince Cable as "a useful prop for David Cameron as he seeks to pretend this is something other than a Conservative government".

"These are decisions of a Conservative-led government propped up by Liberal Democrat passengers. Passengers not in the front seat, not even in the back seat of the car, passengers who have got themselves locked in the boot,"

Up to a point. A government that may fairly be thought 80% Conservative is not, by definition, quite the same as a Tory majority. Those Tories who grumble that the Lib Dems are exerting too much influence on government policy have at least half a point. On issues such as europe, the presence of the Lib Dems has had an impact. (As it has on ID Cards, the income tax threshold and so on.)

But the Westminster Village's mania for dividing lines and choosing winners and losers is not necessarily the best means of approaching this government. It is a Conservative-dominated coalition but it's still also a coalition. Measuring this by the number of policies that can be labelled Tory and comparing this with the number that seem to be of Liberal Democrat provenance is the wrong way to look at it not least since most of the time most of those policies bear a Tory imprint. 

Better, I think, to look at the emphasis of government policy. Europe? Quiet. Immigration? Pretty quiet. Crime? A case of waiting and seeing. This makes sense. It's not as though Lib Dem policies in these areas are running the show, rather that the Tory right's preferences have been parked (europe) or are flying, to some extent, beneath the radar (immigration).

Instead the emphasis lies elsewhere, concentrating on areas of agreement, necessity and long-standing mutual interest. The fact that Nick Clegg also appreciates the need to rein in government spending does not prevent this being a Conservative goal too. Nor does the government's localism agenda become any less Tory simply because it overlaps with long-standing Lib Dem concerns.

So much of the government's actual agenda is broadly similar to what would have happened had the Tories won a majority and some of it bears at least some relation to what might have happened had - suspend your disbelief, please - the Lib Dems won a majority.

None of this is too surprising, but it suits plenty of people on all sides to pretend that this is a secret Lib Dem government (the Tories get nothing they want!) or just a Tory government (the Lib Dems get nothing they want!) It's a Conservative-led partnership but that doesn't mean the Lib Dems are voiceless or powerless, merely that the coalition is concentrating on areas of agreement, not difference. There's more than enough of the former to keep the government busy for several years yet.

And of course it's only because there are such considerable areas of agreement that the coalition deal was possible in the first place. This is not a cats and dogs coalition and the only people who should have been shocked by it were those who weren't paying attention. Neither Cameron nor Clegg sold any great issue of principle to form this government but that doesn't mean that they must agree on everything, far less that anyone should expect their supporters and followers to do so.

Anyway, Miliband's remarks are mainly for show and what one would expect him to say. It serves his purpose to pretend that there's no Lib Dem influence on the government just as it serves the Tory right to pretend that it has no influence either. That doesn't make either Miliband or the Hefferites correct.

A "sham" coalition, of course, was what Labour offered the Liberal Democrats.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.