The Lib Dem–Tory coalition: why I am delighted

The Lib Dems have always argued that coalition government can work. Now they have a chance to prove

When, aged 16 in 1988, I got up to deliver Focus leaflets at 6am, went out canvassing voters during the dark days after the SDP-Liberal merger and found myself dealing with the continuing Owenite SDP in by-elections in Epping and Vauxhall, or even -- most embarrassingly -- when I stood on the back of battle buses (well, open-topped vans), urging the electorate through a loudhailer to "go for gold", the Lib Dem colour, could I have imagined that a representative of the party to which I then belonged could ever become deputy prime minister?

No. And that is just one reason why now, however short-lived the euphoria may be, I rejoice to see the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Tories. Already we hear the voices of recrimination. Lib Dem supporters, apparently, will be angry that their votes have propped up a Tory administration that failed to win a majority. Some of them will be, for sure. Just as some of them would have been if the Lib Dems had helped obtain a rainbow coalition led by Labour.

That's the problem with hung parliaments. That's the problem with a system that has been so skewed that, for the better part of a century, one party or the other has managed to get often-overwhelming majorities while never winning an overall majority of the popular vote. The people speak. And the people have got used to the idea that if, say, 40 per cent of them favour one party, that's enough for a tyranny of the minority to rule.

Well, times change. Instead of a minority of the vote allowing one party to form a government, the electorate still doesn't decide who rules -- but its representatives, who, in this case, represent an overall majority both in seats and votes, do. What irks Labour tribalists so much about Nick Clegg's decision to join with the Tories is, I suspect, their sense that the Liberal Democrats are not a proper party; that their votes properly belong to Labour, and that their natural role in such a situation should be as subservient fellow progressives, happy to fall in line and accept crumbs from the table of their big, collectivist brother.

 

Tribal souls

This is a deeply patronising and thoroughly wrong-headed view. Never mind that the Lib Dems have, in many ways, been consistently to the left of New Labour -- on a personal note, I can say that the seeds of my friendship with the former Tribune editor and Labour NEC member Mark Seddon were sown when Tony Blair won his party's leadership and we found ourselves, somewhat to our puzzlement, agreeing in our opposition to him.

More than that, there is a bloody-minded radicalism, always present in the old Liberal Party and still there in the Liberal Democrats, that represents a left-wing individualism totally antithetical to the class-solidarity conformism that Labour never escapes.

Yet Labour obstinately refuses to recognise that. Its members are tribal in their soul. Liberals wouldn't want to belong to any tribe that would have them as members. A result of this, incidentally, is an instinctive libertarianism that finds more echoes in the views of Tory civil libertarians such as David Davis and Alan Duncan (who used to argue bravely in favour of drug liberalisation) than in a People's Party that all too often seems merely to want people to be the same.

I would have welcomed a Lib Dem-Labour coalition that could have represented an obvious reunion of the progressive centre left. In the end, however, that not only appeared unviable in terms of Commons numbers, but also in terms of Labour intransigence. (Not Old Labour intransigence -- remember, John Reid, the Blairite ex-home secretary, was one of the most vehement in his opposition to a deal. This was not principled. It was tribal.)

So, what was the alternative? The Liberal Democrats have been committed throughout the party's life to electoral reform. The inevitable consequence of that is coalition government. To turn down a deal with the only partner available -- a partner that has showed itself greatly willing -- in order to preserve some puerile purity would have been for the party to fail the one time it was put to the test. You believe in coalition government? Fine, show it. And the Lib Dems are doing so.

 

The safety net

Some will object that the Liberal Democrats have nothing in common with the Conservatives. This is quite wrong, especially when they are led by a man who has made a point of saying that he is not "ideological", a man whose patrician background should not overshadow the more important point about the tradition of One-Nation Toryism in which he stands.

Michael Heseltine quoted Winston Churchill on BBC News yesterday as being in favour of a safety net, below which no one should be allowed to fall, and beyond which people should be able to do as they wish. This is exactly what Liberals believe. What makes them left-wing is that they believe that that safety net should be hung so high that it provides excellence for all.

What makes Labour different is that, in its heart, it always wants to curtail or interfere with the activities of those who either have no need of or who wish to disregard that safety net. It always seeks to control. It's no wonder that the ultimate nanny-state party introduced the surveillance state.

Labour criticised David Cameron for his presumption that he would have the right to rule after this election. Perhaps the People's Party should look to itself. Its slavish conformism led it to embrace a supposedly election-guaranteeing New Labour ideology it should have shunned. Nobody has the right to rule. And nobody has the right to tell the cussed, awkward individualists who still make up the radical core of the Liberal Democrats whom they should go into government with.

A vote for the Lib Dems was neither a vote for the Tories nor one for Labour. There is no such thing as an anti-Tory majority in this country, just as there is no anti-Labour majority. The best -- and most meaningless -- thing one could say is that there is a non-Tory majority, just as there is a non-Labour majority.

So, where does that leave us? Well, if the people spoke, then this time they left it up to the Lib Dems. Now is the time to trust them. True progressive politics entails going beyond an infantile obsession with two-party battles -- when all of us know that life, and the big issues that affect us all, are so much more complicated and nuanced than that.

I, for one, welcome coalition government -- which means majority government for the first time since the Second World War.

As Paddy Ashdown said last night: "Hooray! Hooray!"

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.