David Cameron may have to rely on Nick Clegg to form a majority. But Julian Glover says that a deal should be simple – if they focus on areas where they already agree
In late 2007 two fresh-faced, privately educated party leaders gave speeches setting out their philosophies. ‘We’ve always been motivated by a strong and instinctive scepticism about the capacity of bureaucratic systems to deliver progress,’ said one. I want ‘a politics of people, not systems, of communities, not bureaucracies; of individual innovation, not administrative intervention,’ said the other. ‘The days of big government solutions – of “the man in Whitehall knows best” – are now coming to an end,’ they could have chorused together.
The two men were of course David Cameron and Nick Clegg and they would struggle to remember now which of them said what. Like stalagmites and stalactites growing together to form a solid pillar, their language and their ideas have converged. They both describe themselves as liberals; both think Britain’s social democratic experiment has failed; both want to disperse power. Under Cameron, the Tories have grown socially tolerant; under Clegg the Lib Dems have rediscovered their belief in independence from the state.
The stars are aligned, you might think, for a partnership in power. Not quite. Broad ideological overlap is not the same thing as full agreement and both leaders are anyway at the margins of each party’s ideological centre of gravity. Janet Bluerinse, the Eurosceptic Tory constituency chair with firm views on grammar schools, might not think she had much in common with Bob Dogood, a nearby Liberal Democrat councillor who plays in a folk band and teaches at a comprehensive. On election day more than the colour of their rosettes would divide them.
Yet it matters that Clegg’s principle critique of the Cameron Conservatives is not that they are wrong, but that they are fake. He attacks Tory motives more than Tory ideas. Ideologically, a Clegg-Cameron government, with the Lib Dem leader as deputy and perhaps home secretary, could work. Each man might strengthen the other’s radicalism and protect the government from their parties’ reactionary instincts.
There are two unavoidable areas of difference. The first is Europe. Clegg is still in theory committed to his gimmicky in or out EU referendum, and he is no unthinking federalist, but he is serious about wanting Britain to be an engaged player. He shares Cameron’s desire to break up the state, but he wants power to go upwards, to Brussels and other international bodies, as well as down to the little battalions.
The second area of difference is less clear cut, but potentially troublesome. Lib Dems and Conservatives speak similar language on social justice, but the centre party is explicitly redistributionist in a way the Conservatives are not. This difference manifests itself less in specific policy – although it is telling that while Labour aped George Osborne’s inheritance tax cut, the Lib Dems opposed it – than in priorities. Clegg has championed a dramatic raising of the income tax threshold, and tax rises on high earners. Chancellor Osborne could not tolerate that. Nor does Clegg share Cameron’s commitment to writing marriage into the tax system, though Lib Dems do want to abolish the couple penalty Labour has written into welfare payments.
But both parties believe in the need to cut spending – like George Osborne, Vince Cable has talked of the need to exceed Labour’s promise to halve the deficit in four years. They might squabble over what to cut, and when to start, but from banking reform to tax simplification one can see the makings of an agreed plan. And as the Lib Dem think tank CentreForum has shown, there are other areas where the parties are thinking alike. Education policy is the best known. David Laws, the Lib Dem schools spokesman, has abandoned his party’s old producer-interest opposition to reform. He wants a pupil premium and free schools, just like Michael Gove. Laws points out that he has the money to fund a substantial premium – £2.5 billion is promised – while Gove is hamstrung by Cameron’s populist obsession with protecting NHS spending, which implies cuts for education. But the mechanisms envisaged by the two men are similar. On health, it is the Lib Dems who have floated the idea of breaking up the NHS, and even introducing social insurance, while the Tories have turned into the party of producer interest, the doctor’s friend.
On civil liberties the Conservatives and Lib Dems have of course worked together in the Lords to block Labour’s more outrageous schemes. To Labour’s shame, Conservatives and former Conservatives such as Stuart Wheeler and Andrew Tyrie have proved the firmest opponents of torture and extraordinary rendition. A co-sponsored freedom bill, to scrap ID cards and other detritus of Labour’s security state, would succeed. Some Lib Dems would even vote to end the ban on hunting.
There are differences of rhetoric on crime and immigration – Lib Dems do not think the Tory’s proposed cap on migrants could work. On the environment, for ‘vote blue, go green’ to work, you need to inject yellow into the mix. Lib Dems rightly accuse the Tories of downplaying their green commitments, but former SDP member and now Tory spokesman Greg Clark is credible and popular.
Ideological partisans in each party like to say that the differences are greater than the similarities. Each side judges the other with a sigh: close, they say, but not, in the end, trusted to be close enough. That division is a function of the British party system. Cameron and Clegg share a similar analysis of the state. They are closer to each other than to many distant parts of their respective parties. They could make it work if they tried.
Julian Glover is the Guardian’s chief leader writer.