Three appointments make this government, on balance, a victory for Conservatism. The first is the inspired choice of Iain Duncan Smith as Work and Pensions Secretary: no politician is more committed to welfare reform, or has thought more deeply about it. His last remaining mission in politics is to end the scandal of welfare dependence and through his Centre for Social Justice he has been preparing for this task for years. There is no politician alive better suited to this job, and no one more likely to work faster.
The next is keeping Michael Gove in Education. He is a personal guarantor of the free schools policy which could (if properly implemented) end the scandal of sink schools and restore social mobility. This magazine has said that their schools policy is, in itself, enough reason to vote Tory. Mr Gove as Education Secretary is, by extension, reason in itself to support this coalition government. The school agenda will stand or fall on attention to detail — only Mr Gove is really capable of this level of professionalism.
The third appointment is that of Mr Cameron himself, whose sound judgment and versatility has been demonstrated in these extraordinary few days.
The Lib Dems are left with prestigious-sounding non-jobs like Scotland Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister. To adapt Boris Johnson’s metaphor, we have been served up a sausage government and it is never edifying to see how sausages are made. But the meat in this sausage is most certainly Conservative. The Lib Dems are the gristle.
However palatable this sausage, it is, needless to say, less appetising than a purely Tory government would have been. And this should have been easily achievable when one considers the scale of Labour’s failure and the unpopularity of its leader. Mr Cameron’s campaign underestimated the appeal of proper Conservative ambitions: tackling welfare dependency and dealing with immigration. Time after time they were raised by voters on the doorstep. The ‘Big Society’ message served to confuse and alienate the electorate. The same is, alas, true of the four-month Tory campaign.
Little wonder then that Mr Cameron is in no rush to stage a second election — the traditional way of resolving hung parliaments. But in gambling on a five-year pact, he takes a greater risk: that the Lib Dems will withdraw from the agreement, forcing an election at the time of their choosing. As one Labour MP put it: ‘Wait until the cuts are hurting the most, when nurses are marching down Whitehall, then pull the rug from under them with a no-confidence vote.’ Even legislating for a fixed-term parliament would not guarantee protection from such an outcome.
It is hard to be persuaded that Nick Clegg is incapable of such treachery. Let us not forget that just a few days ago he was prepared to prop up Gordon Brown for four more months, and a new Labour leader there-after. It is unfair to accuse the Lib Dems of rank opportunism — each Westminster party’s real ambition is to further its own interests — but it is worth remembering that there will come a time when Lib Dem interests lie in calling another election. This will be the test of the coalition.
There is no marriage of principle here: Mr Clegg could not have made clearer that he will sell himself, and his party, to the highest bidder. Labour now knows that it need only offer a full proportional representation voting system, and these mercenaries will switch sides. This could happen at any moment in the next five years.
Conservative MPs are not unaware of this. Most of them (along with the majority of public opinion) would have preferred Mr Cameron to go it alone once he had formed a government. Most are making contingency plans for what bookmakers still believe will be a 2:1 chance of a second election this year. Mr Cameron would be wise to do the same. While hoping for five years of happy coalition, he should prepare for a quick and acrimonious divorce, and to emerge triumphant from this divorce he must make as much progress as possible this summer on key Tory areas. One should be school reform: the boldest and best Tory proposal — though one which was too abstract to be of any use in last week’s campaign. Welfare reform, too, must be speedy: a bold and clear fight for a Conservative vision of social justice.
This week has been disorientating for Conservatives: a collision of success and defeat resulting in a compromise unprecedented in peacetime. It would be nice to believe Mr Cameron when he insists that his coalition will produce five years of stability, but it is more tempting perhaps to place a small wager of another election this year. But whatever the outcome, we have now the very best of the Conservatives — Mr Gove and Mr Duncan Smith — in the departments where they can immediately start to repair the damage of these 13 Labour years.