The Lib Dems are in a peacetime government for the first time since Lloyd George was selling peerages in the 1920s. They are part of the first peacetime coalition government. This is (hopefully) the first of a series of posts analysing this phenomenon. Other posts shall examine how the Lib Dems are faring in government, why they aren’t making enough noise about cuts, and what I see happening to them in the future.
This first post shall analyse why Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats decided to enter coalition with the Conservatives in the first place. This is an important point. Just as the constant Labour attacks on the coalition’s cuts beg the question “what services would you cut then?”, the cries of Lib Dem “betrayal” ignore the fact that, practically speaking, Clegg had no other option but to enter a coalition.
Clegg’s hands were tied from the very start by his party’s indifferent election performance. Although the Lib Dems gained 100,000 extra votes, they lost five seats from 2005. After the momentum that had built up during the campaign and the TV debates, this was only a little short of a disaster no matter they tried to spin it.
He had three options:
a) Enter no coalition whatsoever. Say that neither party was offering a referendum on Proportional Representation as the deal for the Lib Dems entering into a coalition government, which was seemingly Nick Clegg’s main deal maker.
The probable outcome of this would be for a minority Tory government, probably needing an agreement with the Lib Dems on some issues on a “Confidence and Supply” basis. This would be an unstable regime, and Clegg would doubtless be accused of playing politics at a time when it was crucial Britain had “stable government”. The most likely outcome of this scenario would be for Cameron to call for a new election within eighteen months. The Conservatives would be the only party financially able to run another national campaign, and would probably win an overall majority. And then the fun would really begin…
b) A coalition with Labour. This was my preferred option, and I e-mailed the Lib Dems to say as much when they offered us the chance to “have our say“. In practice, this would have meant joining Labour, SNP and even the Greens in what would surely have been a wildly unstable coalition. The Tory press would also have pilloried Nick Clegg for doing a deal with “the losers”.
Nevertheless, neither the numbers nor political will from Labour were there to make this potential coalition work. Altogether such a coalition could muster 321 MPs, which would have given them a slender majority when one takes into account the fact that the Speaker and Sinn Fein MPs don’t vote. However, there were 30 or so serial Labour rebels during the last Parliament, and if they continued to vote against legislation there was no way anything could have been passed. Labour could not even guarantee they could pass a bill to ensure a referendum on AV. Furthermore, Labour MPs such as Kate Hoey and David Blunkett were lining up to rubbish a Lib-Lab coalition even as talks were taking place.
And finally, who would be the Prime Minister? Surely not Gordon Brown, who at the end of the campaign just looked completely drained and was very unpopular nationally. It could hardly be Nick Clegg either, after the Lib Dem’s disastrous election night. Which would have meant having another unelected Prime Minister – Alan Johnson, say – who had not appeared in the TV debates. I can’t imagine this would have been acceptable.
c) Enter a coalition with the Tories. It wasn’t a bad deal for the Lib Dems. Cabinet positions – none of the “big three” but some very important posts at climate change, business and chief secretary to the treasury, as well as some junior ministers. The coalition agreement had some decent policies, such as scrapping the idea of a third runway at Heathrow, ending detention of child asylum seekers, scrapping ID cards and the like. Given the unattractiveness of the other options, I don’t think Clegg had any choice but to enter coalition with the Conservatives. Anyone who keeps bleating that the Lib Dems entered the coalition seems to ignore this simple point: what else would you have done in Clegg’s position? None of them have a convincing answer.