David Cameron on a North Sea oil platform. Photo: Getty
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Why David Cameron is considering a “no coalitions clause” in the next Tory manifesto

It's all about the money – of the three major paries, the Conservatives are the most likely to be able to afford a second general election campaign straight after the first.

The official line of why we went into coalition with the Tories is of course that is was the democratic will of the people. Our combined share of the vote of 59 per cent remains the only occasion since the Second World War that the UK government has been formed with a majority share of the popular vote.

But there is another side to the story as well, often debated within the Lib Dems, which explains the real reasoning why David Cameron is debating putting a “no coalitions clause” into the next Conservative manifesto.

And it’s all about money.

The argument is this. Supposing we had declined the Tories “big, open and comprehensive” offer to form a government. Three options remained. The first – a coalition of the progressive left – we can dismiss on the grounds that literally the numbers didn’t add up, even if agreement could have been made between ourselves, Labour, the Greens, the SNP and others.

The other two options were a short term confidence and supply arrangement with the Tories, or to allow the Tories to form a minority government. Neither would have involved any sort of fixed term Parliament Act, and so the date of the next General Election would have been at the discretion of David Cameron. The received wisdom is that it would have followed fairly swiftly, probably in the Autumn of 2010 – when only the Tory Party had the funds to run a second general election campaign. The odds are this would have seen a repeat of 1974 – but this time with a big Tory majority. In effect, they should have been able to buy the election.

Thus, the logic runs within the Lib Dems, going into Government with the Tories was not just the best option – it was the only option to prevent a second election and then 5 years of majority Tory Government, with all those policies currently filling Cameron’s little black book ending up on the Statute Book.

You can bet your bottom dollar the same calculation has been made in Downing Street. While it may well be true that David Cameron does prefer governing with the Lib Dems than with many on the right of his own party – and let’s not forget ruling out any coalition also presumably means no electoral pact with UKIP either – there’s still a ton of stuff he wants to do, that the Lib Dems won’t let him.

And the first, I’ll wager, is changes to the constituency boundaries to remove the current bias to Labour.

So I suspect Downing Street Tories, in retrospect, see the big open and comprehensive offer – made after 2 hours sleep following a 4 week long General Election campaign – as a mistake. Labour, should they win most seats but no majority will probably not be in a position to run a second campaign quickly after the first – and hence will leave the coalition door ajar. But the Tories don’t need to.

Hence, I suspect Cameron sees his winning line in May 2015 as not 326 seats, but just as beating Labour. And even he’s a little short first time round, he knows he’s the only leader who can afford to fight Round 2.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.