The Lib Dems have buyer’s remorse

As the Lib Dems start to feel the pain of being in a dodgy marriage to the Tories, they must wonder

When I look back on 2010, one column of mine stands out from the others I wrote. Headlined "Clegg may yet plump for Cameron" and published on 22 April, it explored the possible fallout from a hung parliament. I remember a very senior Liberal Democrat, who later became a cabinet minister, telling me at the time that he had no objection to forming an alliance with the Conservatives in such a scenario - but it was unlikely to take the form of a full coalition.

“Inside Cowley Street [Lib Dem HQ], there is talk about the possibility of the Lib Dems providing Cameron with 'supply and confidence' in the event of a hung parliament," I wrote, referring to a partnering arrangement in which the smaller party agrees to support a minority government in votes of confidence and on any Budget (or "supply") measure, while considering other issues on a case-by-case basis. Such an agreement "would give Clegg an effective veto over Cameron's non-Budget-related, domestic policy proposals".

Eight months on, as the Liberal Democrats' poll ratings hover around 8 or 9 per cent, as Nick Clegg's effigy is burned in the streets and as various Lib Dem ministers - including members of the cabinet such as Vince Cable and Michael Moore - are "outed" in the Daily Telegraph for being rather critical, in private, of the policies and personalities of their Tory coalition partners, I can't help but wonder what could have been, if the Lib Dems had gone down the route of "supply and confidence".

Minority report

Clearly, I am not one of those who buys the "Tina" ("There is no alternative") line pushed by the coalition and its supporters. The purveyors of this piece of conventional wisdom continue to argue that a coalition between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives was the only viable option, and that a minority government would have been a disaster.

Let us consider these claims in reverse order. British politicians and commentators, perhaps scarred by the experiences of the Callaghan and Major governments, tend to have a knee-jerk disdain for minority governments. But consider the case of New Zealand, where neither the National nor the Labour Party has had an absolute majority in parliament since 1996, and where, for all but two of those years, a minority government has ruled. And yet the country tends to rank higher than the UK on global lists for good governance. Then there is Scotland, which has had a stable Scottish National Party-led minority government since 2007.

A Lib Dem source tells me that supply and confidence would have offered all of the disadvantages of a coalition (having to back spending cuts, the VAT rise and so on) without any of the advantages (ending child detention, raising the tax threshold on low earners, and so on). Under supply and confidence, however, the Lib Dems would not have had to violate - spectacularly and traumatically - their flagship, popular pledge to oppose a rise in university tuition fees.

Some supporters of the coalition dismiss arguments in favour of a minority government as "Labour spin". Yet consider the view of Charles Kennedy, one of the few Lib Dem MPs to emerge from 2010 with his reputation intact, having refused to vote in favour of either entering the coalition or trebling tuition fees.

“I did not subscribe to the view that remaining in opposition ourselves, while extending responsible 'confidence and supply' requirements to a minority Tory administration, was tantamount to a 'do nothing' response," wrote Kennedy in the Observer on 16 May. "I felt that such a course of action would have enabled us to maintain a momentum in opposition, while Labour turned inwards."

Meanwhile, the distortions and contortions of coalition supporters have been a sight to behold. Writing in the London Evening Standard two days before the 6 May general election, the Tory grandee Michael Heseltine argued: "Even without a majority he [David Cameron] will govern without a deal with the Lib Dems - and rightly so." Yet, nine days later, he sat across from me on a BBC Question Time panel and claimed that a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was the only way to secure "firm government" for the country.

Even if we accept that the coalition was the only - and the best - option on offer back in May, the way in which the coalition was formed has caused no end of problems for the Lib Dems.

For a start, as I noted in a previous column, the Tories gobbled up all the "great offices of state" - Treasury, Home Office, Foreign Office - as well as the big-spending departments - Health, Education, Work and Pensions. Why did Clegg not demand one of these for himself?

Marks of distinction

Then there is the composition of those departments. The coalition government was formed of "pooled" ministries, containing junior and senior ministers from both parties, rather than "segregated" ministries - departments where all the ministers are selected from one party only. The pooled option may allow for better communication inside a coalition, but the alternative option has clear party-political advantages. In the words of Catherine Haddon, of the Institute for Government, "Segregated ministries allow parties to clearly present their policy achievements to the electorate."

Take Germany, which some might argue has perfected the art of multiparty governance since 1945. During much of the period in which the Free Democrats have controlled Germany's ministry of foreign affairs, they have done so alone, helping voters to identify their specific achievements and successes. In government, the Free Democrats have gone out of their way to distinguish themselves from their much bigger coalition partners - be they Christian Democrats or Social Democrats.

Here in Britain, the Lib Dems have failed to do the same. In one of the tapes covertly recorded last month by the Telegraph, the business minister Ed Davey can be heard saying: "What I hope is that we had the love-in and that we can begin to assert our identity a little more clearly." His party leader, however, bizarrely continues to insist that the Lib Dems take responsibility for each and every decision taken by the government. He wants them to "own" the coalition.

As we recover from the Christmas sales, I suspect that many Lib Dem members - if not MPs and ministers - may have buyer's remorse. Support for the coalition is on a declining trend. The Lib Dem identity crisis continues. And it didn't have to be this way. Happy New Year.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the NS