Can the coalition survive the crises ahead?
For something cobbled together by eight sleep-deprived men over four days, the coalition agreement has proved remarkably durable. Even now, with relations between the Tories and Lib Dems arguably more strained than ever, the document’s writ still runs. Both parties know that if they didn’t abide by its terms, the show would collapse.
But the document can’t cover every crack, and the coalition has shown itself to be particularly vulnerable to events. In May last year no one expected, for instance, that there would be mass looting on the streets of London. When the riots happened, the coalition struggled to agree on a response: the two parties’ visceral reactions to the disturbances were just too different. With nothing in the coalition agreement to guide them, the government remains at odds over much of the post-riots debate.
In the coming weeks and months, we can expect plenty more divisive events. And each one will probably trigger the same thought in Liberal Democrat heads: what can we say or do to demonstrate that we are not the Conservatives and are ‘punching above our weight’ in government?
Nick Clegg’s new desire to set himself apart from his coalition partners can be seen in his decision to pick a public fight this week with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. He wanted to show that his party had prevented the Conservatives’ new free schools from being the ‘preserve of the privileged few’. The result was to alienate one of the few Tory ministers who had remained favourably disposed to him. Clegg is now down to one Tory Cabinet ally: Ken Clarke.
The riots have heightened both parties’ sense of identity. Clegg’s office can barely contain a giggle when Cameron starts talking about health and safety in relation to the riots.