How long will this coalition last?

The Lib Dems need to avoid being steamrollered by their Tory partners.

In my recent, much-discussed row with the Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes on BBC1's Question Time, I made the mistake of betting on-air that his party's coalition with the Conservatives would collapse within two years. In the ensuing days, as I watched the Cameron-Clegg affair bloom and prosper, and the blissful honeymoon continue, I worried that Hughes might be proved right and this coalition government might survive for the full five years.

But in recent days, my doubts have returned. The Tories have repeatedly reminded their Lib Dem allies that they are in charge, and that the tail does not wag this particular dog. Take yesterday's Queen's Speech.

Here's how today's Times begins its coverage of the speech:

David Cameron tilted the coalition away from the Liberal Democrats with a Queen's Speech that defined tax, immigration and police reform on Conservative terms.

In the main article, Roland Watson, Francis Elliott and Sam Coates highlight

a commitment to lower taxation, the first time since the coalition was formed that such a pledge has been made. Nick Clegg told the Times last week that the government's priority was to rebalance the tax burden, not to reduce it. Last week's coalition programme promised "more competitive, simpler, greener and fairer" tax, but no mention of lower taxation.

And here is the standfirst on the Guardian cover story:

Tory hostility to [electoral] reform could disrupt coalition

In the main article, Patrick Wintour says:

The Conservatives said . . . that the bill on AV would also contain measures to reduce the number of constituencies by as much as 10 per cent and to equalise their size -- a complex, controversial and time-consuming measure that will benefit the Tories.

The Lib Dems say the referendum can be held before the boundary review is complete as long as the legislation has been passed setting the constituency boundary review in train. But some senior Conservative sources were hinting the boundary review would have to be under way before the AV referendum could be staged, so delaying its date.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail's Tim Shipman writes:

Liberal Democrats and Tories are on collision course over plans to tear up the first-past-the-post election system.

The government published plans yesterday for a bill to hold a referendum on bringing in the Alternative Vote system.

But there was immediate disagreement between the coalition partners over when the public will have their say.

. . . Senior Lib Dems fear that if there is a delay, any nationwide vote on electoral reform would simply be seen as a referendum on the government itself, with voters punishing them at the ballot box.

But Tories declared next May "much too soon" for a referendum on electoral reform, voicing the view that it will not be held before autumn 2011 and "could be later than that".

The Tories are playing a dangerous game. Electoral reform has long been the Holy Grail for Liberal Democrats. Indeed, it was Cameron's unexpected concession of a referendum on AV, on the evening of Monday 10 May, that helped him -- finally! -- seal the deal with Clegg.

It would have been impossible for the Lib Dems to join a coalition with the Tories without the referendum promise. And if, in the coming months, they believe that their Conservative partners are intent on dragging their feet and delaying a vote on electoral reform, the Lib Dems may start looking for the exit. Otherwise, they risk being steamrollered by the Tories -- both in office and at the next, first-past-the-post general election.

On a related note, and as today's Independent reminds us, I was amused to see Simon Hughes, of all people, not quite on board the Cleggeron project in the Commons yesterday:

Simon Hughes, a Liberal Democrat backbencher on the left of the party, asked the Prime Minister a less-than-friendly question about housebuilding, but the significance was that Mr Hughes referred to "his" government -- Mr Cameron's, that is. The PM replied that he hoped Mr Hughes would come to regard it as "our" government.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.