David Cameron and Nick Clegg visit Pentland Brands Global Headquarters on July 25, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Behind the bluster, the Tories and the Lib Dems are preparing for another coalition

Clegg and others would rather continue to do business with the Tories than with a Labour Party regarded as irredeemably tribal.

War is in the air at Westminster. Battle plans are being finalised, generals recalled and shock troops deployed. In advance of the start of “the long campaign” in January, all parties are transitioning into election mode. Lynton Crosby, the Conservative strategist, has become the pivotal figure at the 4pm Downing Street meeting as David Cameron’s focus shifts from governing to electioneering. Ed Miliband and his office will shortly move from parliament’s Norman Shaw South building to Labour’s Brewer’s Green HQ to merge with the campaign operation. Lib Dem ministers are avoiding the Commons when possible in order to devote their energies to defending their endangered seats.

The Tories and the Lib Dems have spent the period since the Autumn Statement (which Nick Clegg snubbed to campaign in the marginal constituency of St Ives) publicly berating each other. But unlike past ructions over the Alternative Vote campaign, Cameron’s EU “veto”, the constituency boundary changes and childcare ratios, these controlled explosions are designed to benefit both sides politically.

For the Lib Dems, the aim is to demonstrate their independence to the anti-Conservative voters they need to win over to retain the majority of their seats. Of the party’s 56 constituencies, the Tories are in second place in 37. With most of those MPs in Labour-facing areas regarded as “dead men walking”, in the words of one source, it is in these seats that the party’s hopes reside. By talking up the dangers of a future Conservative government, Lib Dems aspire to persuade left-leaning voters that the safest option is to vote for them. For the Tories, the aim is to advertise the defects of another coalition in advance and to convince the electorate that only a majority Cameron administration can be trusted to maintain economic stability, cut taxes, reduce welfare spending and control immigration.

Figures on both sides express the hope that their near-daily disputes will crowd Labour out of the argument, the dynamic that led Alastair Campbell to lament in 2011 that his party was only “the third most interesting”. Although they confront each other as enemies in the marginals of southern England, the Tories acknowledge that they need the Lib Dems to recover if they are to hold off Labour in the battlegrounds of the north and the Midlands.

Some in Miliband’s party see benefits to this new phase of “aggressive differentiation”. By challenging the Tories’ refusal to impose further tax rises on the wealthy and by making the case for borrowing to invest, the Lib Dems lend credibility to policy stances shared by Labour. It is harder for the Conservatives to dismiss Miliband and Ed Balls as deranged Keynesians when their views are echoed by the people they have been in government with for the past four years. The Labour leader’s speech on 11 December, which took aim at the Tories’ own “35 per cent strategy” to shrink the state to its lowest level since the 1930s, demonstrated his confidence in attacking what he regards as a profound strategic error by Cameron and Osborne.

The Lib Dems’ assault on the Tories also exposes them to the charge of inconsistency, a concern articulated by the former minister Jeremy Browne, who urges his party to focus on claiming credit for the coalition’s achievements. When Clegg’s party complains of the “unnecessary pain” planned by the Conservatives, Labour will remind voters that the Lib Dems supported the “bedroom tax”, the tripling of tuition fees and the reorganisation of the NHS. If the Tories are so nasty, why vote for the people who have sat in cabinet with them since 2010?

The greatest irony of the coalition’s internecine warfare is that its members are quietly preparing the ground for a post-election renewal of vows. Both parties are consciously avoiding policy commitments that could prove impossible to maintain in a future negotiation. While railing against the Lib Dems’ proposed “mansion tax”, Osborne has not ruled out introducing a version in the future (having privately supported the option of higher council tax bands in opposition to Cameron). From the other side, Danny Alexander has said of a future VAT rise, “I certainly would not advocate any further increases” – a signal that he fears he may be forced to do so by the Tories. The only official red line drawn by any figure is Cameron’s vow not to lead a government that cannot deliver an in/out EU referendum. While publicly opposed to this policy, Lib Dems privately signal that they would be prepared to accept it in return for concessions such as House of Lords reform and the introduction of proportional representation for local elections.

They also acknowledge that the party’s leadership would rather continue to do business with the Tories than enter government with a Labour Party regarded as irredeemably tribal and impervious to compromise. One MP tells me that the Lib Dems would be prepared to take the path rejected by the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1974 and prop up a Conservative government with more votes than Miliband’s party but fewer seats. Cameron – who, as the incumbent, enjoys first preference on any future coalition – can give thanks for that.

No party publicly acknowledges such war-gaming. The Tories and Labour, with good reason, maintain the pretence that they can win majorities even as the polls suggest another hung parliament is likely. No one can be seen to contemplate failure in advance. This stance will be harder to maintain in the heat of a general election campaign when the media and the voters, mindful of the experience of 2010, will demand answers on prospective coalitions. For now, though, the conspiracy of silence endures.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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