Confronted by his truculent backbenchers and Labour’s stubborn poll lead, it is not hard to see why David Cameron is reportedly considering the dramatic step of ruling out a second coalition with the Lib Dems after May 2015. Such a pledge would reassure those Tory MPs who have long suspected that he prefers governing with Nick Clegg’s party to governing alone, and would allow Cameron to make a fresh appeal to an electorate increasingly hostile to hung parliaments (a recent MORI poll found that 65 per cent believe they are bad for the country). When Lord Ashcroft asked voters to rank their preferred outcomes in 2012, just 13 per cent said they would like to see another Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, compared to 31 per cent for a Conservative government, 20 per cent for a Labour-Lib Dem coalition and 36 per cent for a Labour government.
A promise to avoid another coalition would enhance what Tim Montgomerie has called the Tories’ “butterfly moment“: the moment they decouple from the Lib Dems and fly in search of a majority. As he wrote in 2012:
There are many drawbacks of Coalition government but there is one enormous advantage.
At the next election – for the first time since World War II – the government will not be up for re-election. Neither of the two parties in the current government can run away from what the Coalition has achieved or failed to achieve but both parties can credibly say that people haven’t had a Conservative or Liberal Democrat government. As one of the two bigger parties in British politics this opportunity is obviously more important for the Conservatives than the Lib Dems. David Cameron will be able to appear before the British electorate and urge them to give him the chance to govern alone for the first time.
David Cameron’s team should prepare carefully for this coalition caterpillar to Tory butterfly moment. It is an opportunity for a fundamental relaunch. An opportunity to describe how a Conservative-only government will be superior to continuing coalition government and to the Labour alternative. The relaunch needs to convey strength. Strength to deliver the bold economic reforms Britain needs and strength to protect Britain’s social contract. Stronger than coalition government with all of its inherent tensions and stronger than a Labour government led by Ed Miliband. Getting this butterfly moment right – making it a big event – is huge for the Conservative chances at the next election.
One factor that has been largely overlooked this morning is the effect such a pledge would have on Labour. A formal promise by Cameron to avoid entering a coalition would immediately lead to pressure from the media and Labour tribalists for Ed Miliband to do the same. While Miliband has emphasised again in the last week that he is fighting for a majority (not least because, as the polls suggest, he has a good chance of achieving one), he has refused to rule out forming a coalition with the Lib Dems. Given the precedent set by May 2010, and the dictum that it is never wise to rule anything out in politics, this has been viewed as the right decision.
But a pledge by Cameron to govern alone, if the Tories are the largest party after May 2015, would sharpen the dilemma. The PM would seek to portray Labour as “weak” for refusing to rule out working with the Lib Dems (although this would rather undermine his attempt to promote the coalition’s record) and would appeal to voters to deliver a “strong” Conservative government. If the polls are tight, it is a message that could resonate. The hope in Labour is that the party will have a large enough lead to be confident of winning a majority, but Cameron’s latest gambit will force Miliband’s party to re-evaluate its strategy.
As for the Lib Dems, their plan to appeal for another term in government, to ensure both a “strong economy” (which Labour, they say, cannot be trusted to deliver) and a “fair society” (which the Tories cannot guarantee) would be destroyed if both parties ruled out forming coalitions in favour of governing alone (perhaps pursuing “the Wilson option” of a second election in the same year). But it is worth bearing in mind what one Liberal Democrat recently described to me as “the nuclear option” of bringing down a minority administration by refusing to support its first Queen’s Speech (discussed by Mark Thompson on The Staggers). Whether such an outcome would do more harm to the Lib Dems or to the governing party is another calculation all sides will have to make in advance of May 2015.
P.S. Here, incidentally, is what a spokesperson for Lib Dem president Tim Farron told The Staggers:
This just makes him [Cameron] seem desperate. I wonder if this pledge is another ‘cast iron guarantee’ from him? I think rather than political positioning and working to shore up his vote, he should get on with running the country. That is what Tim and his Liberal Democrat colleagues plan to do. We should leave future coalitions to the voters and see what electoral arithmetic they give us in 2015.