For Cameron and Clegg, there is still no alternative to the coalition

The PM and his deputy are more dependent on each other than ever.

The rumours are confirmed. House of Lords reform – at least the variant of it proposed by Nick Clegg – is dead. In retaliation, the Liberal Democrats will not support Conservative plans to change the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies, reducing the overall number of seats (to the detriment of the junior coalition party).

This development seemed inevitable from the moment last month when a decision was taken not to force the House of Commons to vote on a "timetable motion" ensuring Clegg’s reforms safe passage through parliament. At that point, David Cameron asked for more time to persuade rebels on his own side to back the plan. Anyone familiar with the mood on the Tory backbenches could have predicted they were not up for persuasion. Labour indicated clearly then too that the limit of their support had been reached – backing the bill in theory, but not the parliamentary means to rush it through. Game over.

That it has taken weeks for the last rites to be read is testimony to how much determination there remains at the very top to maintain the impression that coalition is a functional form of government. Even in his statement today, Clegg presented the move as a contractual renegotiation – part of the technical evolution of a two-party alliance in the event that the terms of agreement are breached – rather than a disorderly tit-for-tat exchange of blows.

He referred at length to what he sees as Labour’s failure to compromise, while glossing over, it seemed to me, the more substantial failure of the Prime Minister to deliver on the commitment he had made. Privately, senior Lib Dems blame Cameron for capitulating to his backbenchers and for generally taking a far too cavalier attitude to what is meant to be – as Team Clegg likes to put it – "the sacred text" of the coalition agreement.

The Tory rejoinder is that the very same text commits the Lib Dems to boundary changes and not just on condition of getting a reformed House of Lords. This hermeneutic dispute can go on forever and is never very edifying. Its very tone, quibbling over commas and interpretations like medieval monks, reinforces the sense of a government lacking broad intellectual and ideological consistency. The reliance on textual analysis to decide which party gets what out of the deal does not exactly indicate strategic clarity.

From speaking to people in Number 10 and the Deputy Prime Minister’s office today I get the impression that both sides are very alert to the danger of appearing adrift and at the mercy of political currents beyond their control – whether it is angry Tory backbenchers thinking they can boss Cameron about or a media mood that starts to write off the coalition and speculate endlessly about when and how it will end.

Hence the decision to get this piece of grim news out now, in the middle of the summer recess, when most eyes are on the Olympics. Both coalition parties are determined to use the autumn season as an opportunity for political re-launch and need to put this ugly episode behind them.

That won’t be so easy. For Clegg, the big problem now is the persistence of questions about what, if not Lords reform, he can hold up as an exclusively Lib Dem trophy snatched from reluctant Tories. (Yes, the raising of the income tax threshold and pupil premium are Clegg’s policies, but Conservatives like them too. The emblematic value of Lords Reform – the thing that would have made it cathartic for Lib Dems -  is that it was something Tory MPs would have to vote for against their will, just as the junior coalition party held its collective nose and marched through the lobbies for tuition fees and NHS reform.)

The resilience of the Lib Dems and their public loyalty to Clegg has been remarkable given the pounding they have taken in opinion polls. But this is the first issue where I sense large numbers, including some ministers, really questioning the big strategic choices that their leader has made in coalition. Why, they ask, did he pick such a battle over an issue too obscure and technical to do the party favours as a badge of political identity in the country? And could he not have foreseen that he would lose?

The climbdown does Cameron no favours either. It means, in essence, that a high-profile part of the government agenda, one that was in the Queen’s Speech and for which legislative time had been allotted, has been vetoed by backbench MPs. Precedent suggests they will be emboldened by that victory. Now more than ever, Cameron faces a challenge to prove that he is leading rather than following his party.

In the past, whenever the Prime Minister has been forced to choose between loyalty to his partnership with Clegg and acceding to the demands of his angry backbenchers, he has chosen the latter. Senior Lib Dems are now saying Cameron must accept that his serial flakiness has got him nowhere and has only weakened his authority. It is time, they say, to recognise that his political future depends on making coalition work and not undermining it when he is too chicken to take on his party.

Many Tories, meanwhile, are saying that Cameron has called Clegg’s bluff. The boundary changes are a serious tactical loss for Number 10 (unmourned by many Conservative MPs, it must be said) but not the kind of defeat on policy that registers with the country as a great humiliation. It is not a point of political honour the way Lords reform was for Clegg. The reality, as one Downing Street aide put it to me this morning, is that the Lib Dems are in no shape to fight an election and must, for the sake of their own credibility, stick with the Conservative line on the economy - the issue that counts more than any other. They have nowhere to go.

That emphatically does not mean the coalition is dissolving. Reports over the weekend that senior Tories were seriously plotting how to govern without the Lib Dems are dismissed by a Downing Street source as "nonsense." Cameron is no less dependent on Clegg’s MPs than he was in 2010. If anything, he needs them all the more now that a small but noisy band of his own MPs have decided to behave as if they were in opposition.

That is the curious paradox of today’s events. The acknowledgement of a breach of the coalition agreement and the announcement of a technical retaliation are clear reminders of how brittle the whole project is. And yet, as Clegg and Cameron are the biggest individual losers, their dependence on one another to keep the show on the road is increased. Today’s news is hardly an affirmation of coalition but it is a stark reminder that, for the Prime Minister and his Deputy, there really is no alternative.

Cameron is no less dependent on Clegg’s MPs than he was in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.