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Why Lib Dems love the grumpy Tories

The calm surface of coalition politics conceals a simple fact — none of the political parties has fo

Parliament is still hung. Its hungedness is sometimes forgotten because coalition government has proved unexpectedly stable. There were ample forecasts that the arrangement could never work and, even when it started working, differences between Tories and Liberal Democrats were routinely advertised as "having the potential to wreck the coalition". NHS reform; the AV referendum; Europe - their wrecking potential is as yet unfulfilled.

Not all rows between the coalition partners are even worthy of the name. Nick Clegg's recent public veto on Michael Gove allowing free schools to operate for profit was choreographed months in advance "down to the last comma and full stop", according to a senior government adviser. It gave the Lib Dem leader a trophy concession to help bring his party behind Gove's reforms.

Behind closed doors, there are disputes of real ferocity, as in any government. Still, a quiet technocratic revolution has been achieved: coalition is established in the repertoire of British peacetime politics. That causes glee among senior Liberal Democrats, although there are many in the party who find alliance with Tories hard to stomach. The mood at the party's annual conference was one of queasy satisfaction. Lib Dems' hunger for power has been fed with unsavoury political partners. Inevitably, dyspeptic anti-Tory belches were released in Birmingham. Tim Farron, the party president, happily anticipated "divorce" from the Conservatives. The Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, warned of a "Tea Party tendency" on the Tory right. On the conference fringe, delegates groaned about NHS reform and university tuition fees.

Thrashable Brown

Privately, Clegg is growing increasingly impatient with his party's public bellyaching. "HMS Coalition is sailing," one senior aide said to me when asked about dissenters. "The question is: are they on board?"

The same might be asked of the right wing of the Conservative Party, which is, for tactical reasons, quite popular with the Lib Dems at the moment. While the junior coalition partner can only be grateful for the hung parliament, the Tory back benches are barely reconciled it having happened at all. David Cameron's inability to thrash the eminently thrashable Gordon Brown is a source of confusion and shame. That feeling expresses itself in haphazard demands - tax cuts for high earners, tighter abortion rules, separation from Europe - all of which helps support the notion, vital to Clegg's prospects of an electoral comeback, that coalition is a brake on Tory fanaticism. "They are not unhelpful," a Lib Dem minister says of these grumpy Tories. "It reminds people what they would have been like without us."

The Tories' failure to win the last election has disoriented Labour, too. It demonstrated that there are still many people, mostly in the north of England and Scotland, whose prime motive in the polling booth is to prevent a Tory government. "They couldn't even beat Gordon," says a recovering Brownite adviser, looking for reasons to be optimistic. Recent history suggests voters sentence ousted parties to opposition for longer than one term, but the indecisive 2010 result opens the tantalising prospect of a swifter recovery for Labour. As one senior member of the shadowcabinet puts it: "We don't know where on the trajectory back to power we're supposed to be."

That confusion is stirred by bad economic news on the eve of Labour's annual conference. On 20 September, the International Monetary Fund downgraded forecasts for growth in the UK economy and counselled flexibility in the government's timetable for cutting the deficit. That looks like vindication for Ed Balls, who has long warned of just such an outcome.

Frustratingly for Labour, scoring political points from bad economic news, when most voters have not followed the nuances of the argument, risks looking ghoulish and smug. Besides, having the right economic analysis after the bust doesn't eliminate the charge that Lab­our presided recklessly over the boom.

Ed Miliband's approach to Labour's legacy is to bury it in bigger themes. He wants to frame the country's economic problems as part of an epoch-shaping ideological challenge - the need to reform capitalism - and not just a managerial task of restoring growth. One Miliband friend and adviser describes the project as "starting with the premise that politics and the economy have to be completely rethought". A Miliband refrain for the Labour conference, as rehearsed in an interview with my colleague Mehdi Hasan (starts page 40), is "ripping up the rule book". Emboldened by victory over Rupert Murdoch in the phone-hacking wars, the Labour leader wants to present himself as the scourge of other unaccountable, vested interests: banks, corporate fat cats, exploitative employers.

Want to be a rebel

One obstacle to this is the memory of Labour's incumbency. How long after slavishly following a rule book can a party convincingly rip it up? Another problem is the Lib Dems, who want to be the government's scourges-in-residence of vested interest. A section of Nick Clegg's conference speech was dedicated to the theme, boasting that his party was never in the pocket of big business or the media barons (although a big reason is that it was never invited).

It is a curious contest. On one side is Labour, recently in government, striving to be a prin­cipled opposition. On the other side are the Lib Dems, knowing only opposition, striving to be credible in government. Both want to be the anti-establishment party, which rather concedes the point that the Tories are still in some deep cultural sense "the establishment". It is a mantle that most Conservatives wear gladly, with or without a majority in parliament.

The three main Westminster parties are struggling to decode the signal that voters sent them at the last election. Meanwhile, Britain is three years in to an economic crisis that could last much longer, leaving most people feeling ever angrier, poorer and more afraid. The gap between people's craving for a remedy and politicians' ability credibly to offer them one is widening at alarming speed. Coalition has solved the technical problem of governing in a hung parliament. That is quite an achievement. It hasn't even begun to address the problem of our hung politics.

Rafael Behr is chief political commentator of the New Statesman

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter