The end of the coalition has already begun

Nick Clegg has sounded the starting gun for the next election campaign.

Forget all this talk of Cameron’s welfare speech yesterday beginning the longest election campaign in history. We’ll now get there sooner than you think

Last week, in just four words, Nick Clegg sounded the starting gun on the end of the coalition. He did it on Thursday. You may have missed it - most people have. But it happened, none the less.

And what were those 4 little words? They were the very unexciting…

"nor the prime minister"

…when telling reporters that neither he nor David Cameron were aware of the education secretary’s plans to bring back the CSE.

Picture the scene in Downing Street when Nick’s words filtered back. They had two options. Back the DPM and confirm that, yes indeed, these were rogue plans, that the Secretary of State for Education had been plotting behind everyone’s back, that he was out of control, challenging the authority of the prime minister, that it was all madness…

Or they could adopt Plan B. And confirm that they knew all about the scheme, and that it was just the poor DPM (and Sarah Teather) who were completely out of the loop. Which is what they did.

Forget all this talk of these ideas being vague notions that were being kicked out about as potential manifesto material in 2015. These were firm plans with definite implementation dates. There was plenty of talk about how Michael Gove didn’t require any new legislation to introduce these changes, that he already had the legal authority to do so.

Now there have been lots of rows in government (Jeremy Hunt being just the latest) but they have been open, frank exchanges of views. What’s more, they have generally been about legislation that first has to go under the full scrutiny of Parliament. This was different. This was secret plotting behind closed doors to make a fundamental change to the education system without consultation. Imagine just now what it’s like in the Department of Education. Meetings behind closed doors and knowing looks from those civil servants ‘in the loop' while everyone else wanders around wondering what they don’t know.

Of course, everyone will try and make out everything’s alright. But like in any relationship, it’s seldom the blazing rows round the kitchen table that signal the end - it’s when the trust goes and the secret trysts are arranged, that’s when things are really over. We’re already sending a chaperon with Cameron when he goes on his jaunt later this week. We can’t let him out of our sight.

I’ve always said that a combination of the current parliamentary arithmetic and last year’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act will cement the government in place until 2015. Now I’m not so sure.

Of course adopting Plan B was designed to prevent the PM looking weak, to confirm that he had firm control over his cabinet. But ironically, his action means Lib Dems must now presume that Tories are constantly plotting behind our backs and this will make the day to day running of government very difficult and will ultimately end the coalition. And within the Tory Party, it’s probably the Secretary of State for Education who will get the credit for that.

It’s almost like Michael Gove was planning it all along….

Nick Clegg and David Cameron on a visit to a factory in Basildon. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage