Talk of coalition divorce is an expression of Tory hope, not fear

While the Lib Dems have much to lose from an early end to the coalition, the Tories can easily see the appeal of trying to govern alone.

Nick Clegg is eager to reassure anyone who is listening that he is committed to coalition for the full five-year term. He made the point in a speech and a press conference today:

Anyone who is wargaming about what may or may not happen in my party is wasting their time. I am going to be leader of this party up to, through and beyond the next general election. The Liberal Democrats despite all the predictions to the contrary have proved to be the calmest, most resilient and most united party in British politics today.

Clegg can hardly say anything different on this most delicate of topics. The tiniest hint that the two coalition parties might go separate ways triggers a frenzy of speculation – as indeed happened when David Cameron alluded in vague terms to such a prospect in his recent interview with Total Politics magazine.

That was not the first hint that coalition dissolution is being contemplated in the upper echelons of the Tory party. (The Conservative back benches, where Clegg is despised, ponder little else.) Someone briefed the Times that contingency plans are being drawn up by senior Conservative aides to accommodate the prospect of the Lib Dems ditching Clegg, choosing a new leader and racing off to the opposition benches.

This is purest mischief aimed at destabilising Clegg. It is a whole lot easier to find Tories who will speculate sagely about the precariousness of the Lib Dem leader than it is to find Lib Dems who insist on despatching Clegg. And it is much easier to find Conservatives who speak with mock alarm about the likelihood of their coalition partners flaking out than it is to find Lib Dems on the verge of flaking.

The reality is that Clegg and his MPs have a lot more to lose from a premature end to their governing partnership. Since they cannot rely on protest voters any more, they have to present themselves as a technocratic party of sensible, centrist government. (This will be offered in contrast to a fiscally unreliable Labour Party and a Conservative Party distracted from national priorities by flights of fanatical fancy.) If the Lib Dems marched away from power they would reinforce every caricature of weak-willed unreliability that their enemies use to damn them – and on the eve of a general election. It would be madness and they know it.

The Tories, by contrast, can easily see the appeal of trying to govern alone. They can also see the advantages of having the Lib Dems back in opposition competing with Labour for a soft left vote. The Tories could still propose legislation as a minority government and then challenge Clegg (or his successor) to do the "responsible" thing by siding with his old partners. They could offer up bills confected explicitly to draw political dividing lines – an EU referendum, even tougher welfare cuts, re-writing human rights law, scrapping employment protections alleged to strangle small enterprises in red tape. Anything that passes can be sold as leadership in adverse circumstances and whatever fails can be used to make the case for a majority Tory government after the election "to do the job properly."

There are Conservative modernisers who also envisage using such a scenario to put forward surprisingly liberal measures – something conspicuously compassionate – to dispel the impression that a Tory administrated un-tethered from the Lib Dems would be a menace to society. In other words, there is a growing feeling that a period of minority government could be used by Cameron to use the parliamentary timetable as one long party political broadcast in the run-up to an election. The obvious downsides to this strategy is the acrid stench of cynicism it would release and the possibility that it makes a Lib-Lab pact look inevitable after 2015.

Still, it is worth remembering that when Tories speculate about Lib Dems pulling out of the coalition it may not be an expression of concern – as they like to pretend – but of hope. 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit together as they visit the Wandsworth Day Nursery in London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution