David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband stand together as Prince Charles launches a new youth campaign at Buckingham Palace on November 21, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A pledge by Cameron to avoid another coalition would put pressure on Miliband to do the same

Labour tribalists and the media would immediately demand that Miliband follow the PM and promise to govern alone after May 2015.

Confronted by his truculent backbenchers and Labour's stubborn poll lead, it is not hard to see why David Cameron is reportedly considering the dramatic step of ruling out  a second coalition with the Lib Dems after May 2015. Such a pledge would reassure those Tory MPs who have long suspected that he prefers governing with Nick Clegg's party to governing alone, and would allow Cameron to make a fresh appeal to an electorate increasingly hostile to hung parliaments (a recent MORI poll found that 65 per cent believe they are bad for the country). When Lord Ashcroft asked voters to rank their preferred outcomes in 2012, just 13 per cent said they would like to see another Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, compared to 31 per cent for a Conservative government, 20 per cent for a Labour-Lib Dem coalition and 36 per cent for a Labour government. 

A promise to avoid another coalition would enhance what Tim Montgomerie has called the Tories' "butterfly moment": the moment they decouple from the Lib Dems and fly in search of a majority. As he wrote in 2012: 

There are many drawbacks of Coalition government but there is one enormous advantage.

At the next election – for the first time since World War II – the government will not be up for re-election. Neither of the two parties in the current government can run away from what the Coalition has achieved or failed to achieve but both parties can credibly say that people haven’t had a Conservative or Liberal Democrat government. As one of the two bigger parties in British politics this opportunity is obviously more important for the Conservatives than the Lib Dems. David Cameron will be able to appear before the British electorate and urge them to give him the chance to govern alone for the first time.

David Cameron’s team should prepare carefully for this coalition caterpillar to Tory butterfly moment. It is an opportunity for a fundamental relaunch. An opportunity to describe how a Conservative-only government will be superior to continuing coalition government and to the Labour alternative. The relaunch needs to convey strength. Strength to deliver the bold economic reforms Britain needs and strength to protect Britain’s social contract. Stronger than coalition government with all of its inherent tensions and stronger than a Labour government led by Ed Miliband. Getting this butterfly moment right – making it a big event – is huge for the Conservative chances at the next election.

One factor that has been largely overlooked this morning is the effect such a pledge would have on Labour. A formal promise by Cameron to avoid entering a coalition would immediately lead to pressure from the media and Labour tribalists for Ed Miliband to do the same. While Miliband has emphasised again in the last week that he is fighting for a majority (not least because, as the polls suggest, he has a good chance of achieving one), he has refused to rule out forming a coalition with the Lib Dems. Given the precedent set by May 2010, and the dictum that it is never wise to rule anything out in politics, this has been viewed as the right decision.

But a pledge by Cameron to govern alone, if the Tories are the largest party after May 2015, would sharpen the dilemma. The PM would seek to portray Labour as "weak" for refusing to rule out working with the Lib Dems (although this would rather undermine his attempt to promote the coalition's record) and would appeal to voters to deliver a "strong" Conservative government. If the polls are tight,  it is a message that could resonate. The hope in Labour is that the party will have a large enough lead to be confident of winning a majority, but Cameron's latest gambit will force Miliband's party to re-evaluate its strategy. 

As for the Lib Dems, their plan to appeal for another term in government, to ensure both a "strong economy" (which Labour, they say, cannot be trusted to deliver) and a "fair society" (which the Tories cannot guarantee) would be destroyed if both parties ruled out forming coalitions in favour of governing alone (perhaps pursuing "the Wilson option" of a second election in the same year). But it is worth bearing in mind what one Liberal Democrat recently described to me as "the nuclear option" of bringing down a minority administration by refusing to support its first Queen's Speech (discussed by Mark Thompson on The Staggers). Whether such an outcome would do more harm to the Lib Dems or to the governing party is another calculation all sides will have to make in advance of May 2015. 

P.S. Here, incidentally, is what a spokesperson for Lib Dem president Tim Farron told The Staggers: 

This just makes him [Cameron] seem desperate.  I wonder if this pledge is another 'cast iron guarantee' from him?  I think rather than political positioning and working to shore up his vote, he should get on with running the country.  That is what Tim and his Liberal Democrat colleagues plan to do.  We should leave future coalitions to the voters and see what electoral arithmetic they give us in 2015.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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