Alex Massie

Playing for Keeps

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So will it work? I'm more optimistic than Fraser and, unlike him, think that this really could, for reasons I'll get to in a minute, be a "new era". Of course, Fraser is not alone in questioning the long-term viability of the coalition. The excellent Steve Richards also thinks it cannae last. The sceptics may yet be proved right.

Nevertheless, it strikes me that viewing this government as an awkward marriage of convenience between a left-wing party and a right-wing party is a mistaken or less than wholly useful approach. Is opposing ID cards a left-wing or right-wing position? Is the localism agenda owned by the right or by the left? Is placing a greater emphasis on the environment and conservation a left-wing or a right-wing issue (especially for younger voters)? For many - and perhaps an increasing number - these labels don't carry much meaning.

Naturally there will be policy differences. But these can be smoothed over, compromised, fudged or ignored. In any case, in terms of outlook and philosophy the parties have much more in common than is sometimes appreciated. Or to put it another way, in many respects David Cameron is closer to Nick Clegg than he is to Lord Tebbit and Clegg is closer to Cameron than he is to, say, Shirley Williams. Yes there will be disagreements and sometimes these will be difficult and, at times, painful to reconcile. But as a general rule personality matters as much as, and perhaps more than, policy.

The key to the coalition's health and longevity is the relationship between Cameron and Clegg. That's much more important than just about any policy problem that might have the potential to wreck the partnership. I would caution that the way to destabilise the coalition is to treat the Lib Dems as, in Fraser's words, nothing more than "backing vocals". Coalitions are built on and maintained by trust and by both parties, but especially the smaller partner, feeling wanted, included and, above all, respected. They fall when trust evaporates.

To take one example: the Fianna Fail-Labour coalition* that came to power in Ireland in 1992 didn't fall because of any policy disagreement. Labour pulled the plug because Dick Spring felt marginalised and humiliated and because he didn't think he could trust Fianna Fail anymore or put up with their attitude towards the coalition. If Albert Reynolds and Fianna Fail hadn't been so stupid and so high-handed the government would have lasted without any problems at all.

So far - and it is of course early days - Cameron appears to recognise this, recognising that the smaller party often risks more from coalition than the larger, more firmly supported, senior partner. That means that its incumbent upon the larger party to be generous and, at times, understanding. Its identity is not threatened by the deal, nor are its electoral fortunes likely to be squeezed next time punters troop to the polls. So, yes, generosity, sympathy and a degree of tact are needed when handling these affairs.

I think - or at least the early signs are - that Cameron understands this. You can't take the little guys for granted because doing so breeds the resentment and suspicion that will eventually hollow-out the coalition to the point that it actually collapses. So he's right not to have forced the Lib Dems to commit to too many policies they'd find difficult. As John Rentoul points out, if the Liberals abstain on nuclear power and the marriage tax deal then this means those items go through but the Lib Dems don't have to feel bad about being compelled to support them. Meanwhile, the Tory backbenchers don't have to feel that they're being held to ransom by their junior partner.

At the moment, then, there's an almost bewildering amount of pragmatism and good sense on display. (One important exception: the proposal to insist that no confidence motions be carried by 55% is daft, questionably democratic and something that should be quietly shelved. UPDATE: See here for more, and some rethinking, on this.)

Paradoxically the coalition, however, is strengthened, not weakened, by the extremity of the times. The consequences of collapse are bad for both parties, especially since Labour will fight the next election without the Gordon Brown Albatross. This should help concentrate minds and increase stability while also, actually, making it easier to really tackle the deficit and long-term debt. In for a penny, in for eighty billion pounds...The unpopulaity of the coming cuts will lash the Tories and Liberals together. If they hold their nerve, that is...

I dare say it is true that, despite Jonathan Freedland's mischievous suggestion to the contrary, Cameron would have preferred to win an outright majority. But he should perhaps be thankful that he did not. A Tory majority of, say, 15 might have proven less stable than this coalition; worse it would have meant the leadership being held hostage by its own backbenchers to a degree that is not the case now this arrangement is in place.

And, of course, as some of us have argued for some time, it binds the Lib Dems to Cameron not just for the short-term but, if the agreement holds, through the next election too. At the risk of getting too far ahead of ourselves, let's consider how 2015 might play..

If the Camerlegg ministry makes it that far then, regardless of how happy or even how successful the experience has been, it makes sense for the parties to work together and stand on an agreed platform in the election. This might be sensible if the election is conducted by FPTP but becomes almost essential, or certainly exceedingly advantageous, if it's run on the Alternative Vote system.

Theoretically the Lib Dems could disassociate themselves from their own record and say that they'd be open to sharing power with either Labour or the Conservatives, depending on the parliamentary arithmetic; practically however the more voters think Clegg might switch parters the more likely the Lib Dem vote is to be squeezed. Realistically, then, most of the more plausible scenarios tie the Lib Dems to the Tories.

This in turn means that Labour might need to win a majority to govern and that so long as the Tories stay above, say, 290 seats they should be well placed to remain in power in alliance with the Lib Dems. Remember too that redrawing constituency boundaries will make Labour's task even more difficult. It will be their turn to need to win, in effect, the best part of 100 additional seats just to get a working majority.

That's the prize, then: realigning British politics so that the centre-right is the natural party of government more likely, all else being equal, to prevail than the left. This being so, and again this is of course premature and hugely speculative, I'd argue that there's an excellent case for Cameron deciding to continue with coalition government, as some of his Tory predecessors have, even if the Tories were to win a small majority in 2015. Again, the rewards of a generous, inclusive approach would dwarf the inconveniences of coalition government and make a third term more, not less, likely.

Of course there are any number of things that could go wrong and this is but one possible scenario among many and it may be that europe will stymie and wreck everything. But it's a scenario worth aiming for since, in the longer-term the object would be to have the Tories in the role of the CDU/CSU with the Lib Dems playing the part of the Free Democrats leaving Labour on the outside and out of power.

As I say, all highly speculative but out of crisis comes opportunity and there's a chance - just a chance - for Liberal Conservatism to seize and hold the commanding heights for many years to come.

But that means handling the coalition sensitively, respecting the Lib Dems, nurturing them and giving them freedom and responsibility too. I think, or hope anyway, that Cameron understands this and that he understands the size of the prize that might be waiting for him out there at some point in the future...

PS: Julian Glover gets it. Which means that I think he agrees with me.You should also read the great Danny Finkelstein. For a characteristically acute Labour perspective on this, see Hopi Sen.

*Fergus Finlay's memoir Snakes and Ladders is an excellent account of this time and a book that the Tories and Lib Dems might usefully consult for guidance on how to manage a coalition.

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.

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