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22 June 2011

Confusion grows over the purpose of the coalition

Coalition 2.0, an attempt to thrash out a joint agenda for the second half of parliament, has been w

By Rafael Behr

They called it Coalition 2.0 — a working group of ministers and policy wonk Tories and Lib Dems, with the task of thrashing out a joint agenda for the government for the second half of the parliament. Last summer’s coalition agreement doesn’t contain enough plans to fill up a whole legislative term. Or at least it wasn’t meant to, but with sufficient “pauses” along the lines of the recent NHS reform pit stop, they might eke it out for a good few years. That wouldn’t look good though and the more enthusiastic supporters of Coalition 2.0 thought it might deliver a second formal agreement. It won’t. The whole thing has been downgraded, with one participant telling me recently it is most likely to deliver some vague statement of shared principles after the Olympics next summer. It is a sign of growing confusion at the heart of government about what the coalition is actually for — the subject of my column in this week’s magazine.

On the Conservative side, I’ve looked at the competition between what I call Romantic and Pragmatic tendencies in David Cameron’s inner circle — those that see the whole project in terms of a grand re-alignment of politics, and those that see coalition more as a means to a Tory end: securing a second term with an outright majority.

That has focused Lib Dem minds on the need to carve out a distinct and positive agenda within the coalition. Party strategists know they won’t make any progress with voters by simply watering down Tory proposals, as they did with the NHS reform.

Clegg can hardly build an electoral recovery by casting himself as an iceberg, lurking mostly beneath the surface waiting to sink Tory boats. If the Lib Dems block too much legislation the Tories will denounce them as unfit for office. “There’s no advantage to us from stalemate government,” says one senior Clegg aide.

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How to avoid stalemate was the main subject of discussions at a recent Lib Dem “away day” (technically two days) in Bingley, Yorkshire — in a conference centre and hotel in a converted Gothic mansion. One detail from that meeting of no great consequence and therefore not included the column: there was a pub quiz to break up the heavy political chatter. The result was close, but I gather deputy leader Simon Hughes’s table won. Clegg’s Special Branch security protection team also put in an impressive performance, apparently.