Confusion grows over the purpose of the coalition

Coalition 2.0, an attempt to thrash out a joint agenda for the second half of parliament, has been w

They called it Coalition 2.0 -- a working group of ministers and policy wonk Tories and Lib Dems, with the task of thrashing out a joint agenda for the government for the second half of the parliament. Last summer's coalition agreement doesn't contain enough plans to fill up a whole legislative term. Or at least it wasn't meant to, but with sufficient "pauses" along the lines of the recent NHS reform pit stop, they might eke it out for a good few years. That wouldn't look good though and the more enthusiastic supporters of Coalition 2.0 thought it might deliver a second formal agreement. It won't. The whole thing has been downgraded, with one participant telling me recently it is most likely to deliver some vague statement of shared principles after the Olympics next summer. It is a sign of growing confusion at the heart of government about what the coalition is actually for -- the subject of my column in this week's magazine.

On the Conservative side, I've looked at the competition between what I call Romantic and Pragmatic tendencies in David Cameron's inner circle -- those that see the whole project in terms of a grand re-alignment of politics, and those that see coalition more as a means to a Tory end: securing a second term with an outright majority.

That has focused Lib Dem minds on the need to carve out a distinct and positive agenda within the coalition. Party strategists know they won't make any progress with voters by simply watering down Tory proposals, as they did with the NHS reform.

Clegg can hardly build an electoral recovery by casting himself as an iceberg, lurking mostly beneath the surface waiting to sink Tory boats. If the Lib Dems block too much legislation the Tories will denounce them as unfit for office. "There's no advantage to us from stalemate government," says one senior Clegg aide.

How to avoid stalemate was the main subject of discussions at a recent Lib Dem "away day" (technically two days) in Bingley, Yorkshire -- in a conference centre and hotel in a converted Gothic mansion. One detail from that meeting of no great consequence and therefore not included the column: there was a pub quiz to break up the heavy political chatter. The result was close, but I gather deputy leader Simon Hughes's table won. Clegg's Special Branch security protection team also put in an impressive performance, apparently.

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

Photo: Getty
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How our actual real-life adult politicians are mourning Big Ben falling silent

MPs are holding a vigil for a big bell.

Democracy in action in the Mother of Parliaments has always been a breathtaking spectacle, and today is no exception. For a group of our elected representatives, the lawmakers, the mouthpieces for the needy, vulnerable and voiceless among us, will be holding a silent vigil, heads bowed, for the stopping of Big Ben’s bongs for four years.

That’s right. Our politicians are mourning an old bell that won’t chime for a limited period.

Here’s everything ludicrous they’ve been saying about it:

“Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.

“And I hope that the speaker, as the chairman of the House of Commons commission, will look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years.”

- The Right Honourable Theresa May MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, head of Her Majesty’s Government.

“There’s going to be a small group of us standing there with bowed heads in the courtyard… a group of like-minded traditionalists.

“We’re going to be gathering outside the members’ entrance, gazing up at this noble, glorious edifice, listening to the sounds rolling across Westminster, summoning true democrats to the Palace of Westminster.

“We’ll be stood down there with heads bowed but hope in our hearts.”

- Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing North, Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland Where There Are Actual Issues.

“Why can’t they switch the bells back on when they stop working at 5pm or 6pm or whenever it is? Also why is it taking four years?… My own view is that Big Ben, whether it be the Elizabeth Tower or indeed the bell inside, it’s not just one of the most iconic British things, it’s one of the most iconic world things, it’s on a Unesco site.”

- Nigel Evans, Conservative MP for the Ribble Valley and Adult Human Person.

“Four years to repair Big Ben?! We could have left the EU twice in that time.”

- The Right Honourable Lord Adonis, formerly of the No 10 Policy Unit and ex-Secretary of State for Transport.

“I think Big Ben ought to be kept striking as much as possible during the repairs as long as it doesn’t deafen the work force.

“It would be symbolically uplifting for it to sound out our departure from the EU as a literally ringing endorsement of democracy.”

 - The Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset and Our Future Overlord.

“We are being liberated from the European Union superstate and Britain will again be a completely self-governing country. Where will the eyes of the world be? On Parliament and Big Ben. It would be very strange if at midnight on that day it does not chime out, very bizarre. It is the heart of our nation.”

 - Peter Bone, Conservative MP for the Unfortunate Doomed of Wellingborough. 

Others have responded:

“[Silencing the bell is] not a national disaster or catastrophe.”

- The Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn MP, Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition (to broken clocks).

“When you see the footage [on Monday] of our colleagues who gather at the foot of Big Ben you will not see too many colleagues who have careers ahead of them.”

- Conor Burns (by name and by nature), Conservative MP for Bournemouth West and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary.

“I think we should respect people’s health and safety while we’re at work.

“To be honest, there are more important things to be worrying about. We’ve got Grenfell Tower, we’ve got thousands of people across our country let down who don’t get access to proper mental health care, and so on and so forth.

“Quite apart from what’s happened in Barcelona, let’s just get a life and realise there are more important things around.”

- The Right Honourable Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, former Health Minister, and National Voice of Reason 2017.

I'm a mole, innit.