Monday, May 24, 2010

The Best Result, Considering...

So, it's been over two full weeks since the general election and 13 days since the formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, and they're still happily working together forging "the new politics" with all their joint might and their shiny new liberal loveliness.

Nick Clegg finally made his mind up. After double dealing right up to the end, he plumped for a coalition deal with the Tories. More details are emerging as to the extent of the doubling dealing and it seems Vince Cable was the most resistant senior LibDem according to The Times. Still, he's been rewarded (possibly to keep him happy for a while) with the role of Business Secretary. I'm not sure if Cameron wasn't having a little laugh here at old Vince's expense. I just hope he can get over the nausea that businessmen seem to produce in him, otherwise he's going to struggle!

I hope that Clegg's behaviour was a genuine attempt to leverage his negotiating position and that now he is fully committed to governing with the party that did, when all is said and done, win* the election. I'm not convinced his tactics actually forced much extra from the Tories, they would have known that any deal between the LibDems and Labour would have been terminally poisonous for Clegg and his party. Had they chosen that option, the final result would have been a massive victory for the Conservatives in a (not too distant) 2nd general election when the precarious "rainbow alliance" fell apart and the people got their chance to punish the LibDems and the other parties that propped up a failed and rejected Labour government.

David Cameron has taken the result of the election and shown genuinely impressive leadership by reaching out to the LibDems and offering them a fully fledged coalition. It was the best option for the country and for both parties, in my opinion. There are many in each party that wouldn't agree, but they are blind to the political reality that a hung parliament election result placed their leaders in. Going it alone as a minority government would have led to more, not less, compromise as the Tories would have had to strike deals ad hoc on every piece of legislation to get it through the House of Commons. Anything less than a coalition would have lasted months not years and in the mean time the country would have lacked a government with a clear direction and purpose, instead it would have had one that survived day to day, during a time of financial crisis.

So, those on the right of the Conservative party and the left of the LibDems are very uncomfortable about the arrangement, and they should be. The LibDem left because their delusion that there is a natural left of centre political consensus in Britain that would forever defeat the "evil Tories" is likely to be exposed as the myth it is by this liberally minded right of centre government. And the Tory right because their hopes that Cameron was going to transpose into an illiberal hang 'em and flog 'em socially conservative Conservative is now clearly not going to happen (as, indeed, it was never going to happen).

The truth is that, had Cameron won the election but with a slim majority, his government would have been at the mercy of those same right wing MPs in any tight parliamentary votes and, on some issues, could have been forced more to the right than Cameron would have wanted. You only have to look at John Major's last months in office (when his majority was reduced by several by-election losses until he was finally running a minority government) to see what slim majorities and minority government does to the strength of a government. Again, such a situation was likely to end in tears and after a few years of battling with his own backbenchers, Cameron, like Major, would be have been perceived as "weak and ineffectual", purely because of the weak and ineffectual position the electorate (or electoral system?) put him in.

So, if there wasn't to be a strong parliamentary majority for any one party, this was probably the best outcome that we could have hope for. It's now up to the two main leaders to keep their parties in line and cooperating. Some think Cameron has been cack handed in his party management this last week. Perhaps, but one thing is clear, he needs to ensure he can command his party when things get tight. Hopefully, the massive new Tory intake of MPs will be more open minded to change than some of the old guard seem to be.

Clegg has had more serious problems with his left wing leadership predecessors mouthing off about their discomfort with the Tory pact. He should slap them down as the failed yesterday's men that they are. It was Clegg's redirection of his party away from the left when he became leader that has enabled him to take his party into government and they should be thanking him for it, not carping on about their pathetic anti-Tory prejudices. These malcontents sound more like sixth form politics students than serious politicians. But then, their Party has, up to now, been little more than a glorified debating society. Many in his party will struggle to move out of their current mind-set and focus on the serious matters at hand, but Clegg has to take them with him if he's to maintain the stability of the coalition. His leadership skills will be tested many time in the course of the life of this coalition.
Monday sees the announcement of the first tranche of spending cuts. This will only be the start of many difficult and unpopular measures the government will have to take to deal with Labour's financial vandalism. I hope the LibDems have the stomach for it. Time will tell whether or not they can stick to the task in hand and follow through, or whether they will cut and run when the going gets tough. Cameron is, at the end of the day, at Clegg's mercy. He can pull the plug as any time. But if he does so for party political expediency, voters will punish him for it. The only problem is that they could also punish the Tories for the taste of the medicine they are being force fed and that could let Labour in again. The very last thing that the country needs.

Let's hope this coalition really does last 5 years. I think they'll need that time to demonstrate that the medicine will work and that it was worth taking it.

* - Yes, I don't buy this spin from Labour that no one actually won the election and that all options were equally valid and credible. The Tories won as they were the most popular party. They failed to win an outright majority in parliament however, even if they were by far the biggest party. This failure (possibly) may not have occurred if the constituencies were all of a similar size (as the system requires them to be).

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