The coalition was the best option in May 2010, and it's the best option now

Why Lib Dem members should support their leadership.

Liberal Left's opposition to the Liberal Democrats' involvement in the coalition, as set out by here Linda Jack, is based on a number of questionable premises and an unwillingness to consider the realistic alternatives.

The group's vice-chair, Richard Grayson, criticises what he sees as the party's change of view on the deficit. He is wrong. Pre-election, Vince Cable's key message on the deficit was that a judgement on the timing of austerity had to be based on economics rather than politics or ideology. On that basis, in the run up to the election, the party adopted the working assumption that cuts would start in earnest in 2011-12, with some savings made immediately as a "down payment".

Yet by the time of the coalition negotiations the economic situation had changed. Alistair Darling was attending emergency meetings in Brussels as the threat of contagion loomed large over Europe. With one of Europe's biggest budget deficits, Britain was in a perilous position. And it's for this reason that the party's judgement changed. And in my view we've been proved right - yes, the economy might be growing more slowly than we would like, but the deficit is coming down and we avoided being caught in the centre of the fiscal crisis that spread through Europe.

And there is a more compelling reason why Liberal Left are wrong to oppose our involvement in the coalition: the alternatives would have been much, much worse.

A coalition with Labour and a number of the smaller parties in Parliament was never a serious proposition, both because of the numerical difficulties and because of Labour's intransigence. In hindsight it's clear that most in the Labour party weren't interested in joining a coalition. They'd rather be in opposition.

A confidence and supply arrangement was another option, but in my view those who think this would have been better for either the country or the Lib Dems are mistaken; it would have all the downsides of coalition with few of the benefits.

That left only a coalition or a minority Tory administration. Within weeks of forming a minority government, George Osborne would have produced the most populist, tax-cutting budget imaginable and, when it failed to get through the Commons, David Cameron would have visited Her Majesty, Parliament would have been dissolved and a new general election - probably in autumn 2010 - would have ensued. And at this point, both Labour and the Tories would have had one message: "it's time for you to vote for one of us - the Lib Dems have rejected the option of power". The Lib Dems would have been squeezed like never before; every marginal - virtually every Lib Dem seat - would be vulnerable. We'd have been reduced to a miniscule Parliamentary Party.

And the Tories would have got their majority. Even the most anti-coalition of Lib Dems can't seriously say that that would have been a preferable option.

The combination of being in government and being members of a truly democratic party leaves Lib Dem members with an immense amount of influence. We should use it as best we can to make this government is fair and as liberal as possible - not blindly supporting but constructively engaging, working with Lib Dem ministers, who we know to be honest, caring liberals, to achieve as much as possible.

We won't always get our own way, as we shouldn't as a party that received 22 per cent of the vote and fewer than one in ten seats in the Commons at the last election. But we are punching above our weight to implement hundreds of long-standing party policies.

Going into coalition was the best option for the Liberal Democrats and for the country, and the arguments why remain just as compelling today as they did on 11 May 2010. Party members must concentrate on making it work, for the country and for the party. Opposing from the sidelines is no solution at all.

Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here

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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.