‘Coalition is like a see-saw,’ David Cameron used to say. The line, delivered with that confident smile which says politics is child’s play to me, summed up Cameron’s approach to the job in the first months of his government.
Back then, he thought it was his and Clegg’s job to shift the weight around so that no one fell off the see-saw. This was based on the premise that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister could control events; they could ensure that any victory for the social democratic wing of the Liberal Democrats was followed by something that pleased the Tory right.
But Cameron and Clegg don’t have the see-saw to themselves any more. The rowdier elements in their two parties are jumping up and down on the ends of it at every opportunity, desperately trying to throw the other lot off.
This roughhousing reflects a general loss of coalition affection. The two leaders now have to pay as much attention to party management as coalition management. Those who have been into No. 10 to discuss policy in the last few weeks report that the restless mood of the right pops up in nearly every conversation. The chief whip’s warnings about parliamentary opinion — he’s renamed the Thatcherite No Turning Back Group of Tory MPs the ‘Don’t Turn Your Back Group’ — are being taken increasingly seriously.
In private, some of the Prime Minister’s closest allies fret about the gap between him and his party widening. This worry has led to Cameron executing a strategic shift. On Monday, he gave his first speech about what he would do if it wasn’t for those pesky Liberal Democrats. He laid out a whole series of changes to the welfare state that a Conservative government with a majority would make.
Until now, Cameron has been reluctant to talk in such terms. Downing Street feared that saying what he would like to do but cannot would make the Prime Minister look like he was in office but not in power. There was a fear that laying out how a Tory-only government would be different would just make the party all the more enthusiastic for pulling the plug on the current arrangements. For their part, party strategists warned that for Cameron — supposedly, three years away from an election — to say what the Conservatives will put in their manifesto would box him in. But the mood within the party is so tense that these concerns were overridden.
One of the reasons that the Tory high command is now paying so much attention to party management is that it knows that the summer is going to be dominated by an issue — Lords reform — that will test the unity of the coalition. As one Cabinet minister says, ‘It helps that Tory MPs are being reminded that Tory ministers would like to do Conservative things given what we’re going to ask them to do over the next few months.’
Reform of the House of Lords has come to symbolise for Tory MPs the distorting effect that the Liberal Democrats are having on the government’s agenda. They complain that, at a time when living standards are being squeezed, the economy remains stagnant and Europe is in flux, it is absurd that the coalition is devoting so much energy to an ill-thought-through constitutional reform that is an irrelevance to voters and threatens to disrupt the coalition’s entire legislative agenda.
The Tory rebels are confident that at least 100 of their colleagues will vote against the programme motion on 10 July. Their numbers are being boosted by the mixed signals that the Prime Minister is sending out. In a recent meeting with a group of Tory MPs, he indicated that he had no interest in wreaking vengeance on those who vote against Lords reform. Ambitious MPs who are prepared to vote against the government nevertheless talk about having ‘squared off’ the powers that be.
If the programme motion is defeated, which it seems certain to be given that Labour will oppose it, then the Commons will have unlimited time to debate the measure. If Cameron and Clegg plough on regardless, then they’ll have little chance of getting much other significant legislation through. One Cabinet minister concedes, ‘I genuinely do not know how we handle that.’
Rather than see the government defeated, the whips are contemplating simply not tabling a timetable motion. I understand that their plan is to make the House sit into the recess in the hope that this will make the Commons agree to limit the time spent debating the bill.
This tactic, though, is reliant on the Tory rebels going wobbly. At the moment, there is no sign of that. They believe that they are on the right side of Tory history, that when the coalition ends they will be able to say that they always stood by their party’s interests.
For their part, allies of the Deputy Prime Minister are determined to do everything they can to get this unfinished piece of Liberal business through. One says with a note of defiance in his voice, ‘If Lords reform doesn’t happen because of Tory backwoodsmen and Labour silly-buggery, it won’t be because we didn’t fight for it.’ The problem for them is that the electorate, which remains profoundly uninterested in constitutional matters, might well not notice. Or, indeed, care.
But if Lords reform dies, the coalition enters a new, more difficult phase. One person close to the Deputy Prime Minister says, ‘It is not enough for the Prime Minister to say, “Nick, I’ve tried”.’ They warn that if Tory backbench recalcitrance does for it, then the Liberal Democrats will take a different approach to the coalition. ‘The vengeance that they need to worry about being meted out is not by Cameron but by us.’
Without progress on the second chamber, it is hard to imagine the Liberal Democrats voting for the new constituency boundaries that the Tory leadership thinks are so important to Cameron’s chances of winning a majority. At this point, the Tories would have far less to gain from keeping the see-saw balanced.
Perhaps the most important thing that the Tory groundswell over Lords reform reveals, though, is that Conservative MPs are already looking beyond the coalition. Their thoughts have now turned to how best to position themselves within the party for the future. This makes it that much harder to persuade them to play nicely with the Liberal Democrats.