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

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt