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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit