Why the Lib Dems should avoid "confidence and supply"

Such a deal would satisfy neither supporters nor opponents of the coalition.

The idea of a "confidence and supply" agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, first mooted after the 2010 election, has re-entered political discussion after the almighty bust-up over House of Lords reform. The expectation on both sides is that the coalition will end in 2014, a year out from the next election, or possibly even earlier. Conservative MP Graham Brady,  the chairman of the 1922 committee, told Radio 4's Westminster Hour last night:

I think it would be logical and sensible for both parties to be able to present their separate vision to the public in time for the public to form a clear view before the election.

Of course, it is always possible that that moment of separation could come sooner. It's very difficult to predict when that might be.

The Lib Dems would then agree to support a minority Tory government in votes of no confidence ("confidence") and on any Budget (or "supply") measure.

It's arguable that the Lib Dems should have adopted such an arrangement from the start, rather than entered coalition with the Conservatives. Whilst Nick Clegg's party would still have had to support George Osborne's "emergency Budget" and the Spending Review, it could have avoided breaking its totemic pledge to cap tuition fees and could have voted against the government's NHS reforms.

But a confidence and supply deal with the Tories would now be the worst of all possible worlds for the Lib Dems. It would do nothing to placate those voters who despise them for propping up a Conservative government (indeed, this charge would have even more resonance), whilst antagonising those who believe they were right to enter coalition "in the national interest". Clegg's party would still have to vote for a Conservative Budget, brimming with welfare cuts, with even less guarantee of concessions elsewhere. A pact with the Tories would, to borrow a phrase, be a "miserable little compromise".

There are good arguments for the Lib Dems remaining in the coalition until 2015 and for them withdrawing completely before the next election. But there are none for entering the purgatory of confidence and supply.

Update: Academic Tim Bale, the author of the excellent The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, has alerted me to his research on the subject, which confirms that "confidence and supply" is frequently a curse for small parties.

The coalition is now likely to end before 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era