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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.