Mutual interest still sustains the increasingly fraught Lib Dem-Tory alliance. But Iran could tear them apart
Can the coalition go the distance? It is a testimony to its essential stability to date that this has not been asked more often. Now the question is preoccupying people in both parties as Lib Dems queue up at their spring conference to ventilate their grievances against the Tories and Tory MPs express their resentments about the Lib Dems on all available outlets.
Let us start with the positives for the coalition. Despite an increasing number of fracture lines, there remain several good reasons to think that it will go the full five years or something like it. At the apex of government, relationships are generally amicable, at least by the standards of politics. “It is a chummier cabinet than many majority governments,” argues one Tory who sits at the top table. The Rose Garden glow of the early days has evolved into a cooler, scratchier, warier relationship, but there is not the toxic cocktail of deep personal mistrust and high policy dispute that disfigured the governments of Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Harold Wilson. Nor have we seen the sort of breakdowns in the relationship between the prime minister and senior colleagues that punctuated Margaret Thatcher’s time at Number 10.
There are rows and an increasing number of them are now being conducted in public, a trend amplified by the imminence of the budget. Yet the optimistic tendency in the cabinet takes this to be a healthy sign. One Tory minister likens it to a marriage: “Couples who argue with each other are communicating. It is when they stop talking that things are really over. When we and the Lib Dems can’t talk to each other, then we should start to worry.”
One of the many Conservative MPs resentful of being in cohabitation with the Lib Dems recently quoted Disraeli to me: “England does not love coalitions.” True, the coalition is not loved, but the combined polling score of the Tories and Lib Dems often tops 50%, rather to the surprise, it should be said, of some senior figures in both parties. On the big issue – the economy – they still have a shared paramount goal, which is crucial to their future fortunes. To justify the coalition to their core supporters and the wider public, the Conservatives and Lib Dems will want to go into the next election with a convincing case that they got the job done on the deficit. Or, rather, since it doesn’t look like they will be able to argue that, that the challenge is well on its way to being overcome.
“If we can’t convince a majority of the public of that, frankly nothing else will matter much,” observes one Tory minister. It can also be argued that some of the most difficult and divisive issues for the coalition are now behind it. Several of the big-ticket items of its domestic programme – schools reform, tuition fees, health and welfare – have completed their passage through Parliament or will do so imminently. The shift of emphasis from legislating to implementing does not mean there will be no more trouble ahead, but it won’t be erupting in Parliament. One Lib Dem says: “Many of the legislative landmines are now behind us.”
Even if none of the above were true, and even if both sides end up thoroughly detesting each other, cynical calculations of realpolitik further suggest that the coalition will probably last because neither party has an interest in causing its premature collapse. Were the Lib Dems to flounce out saying they couldn’t stand another minute in the same bed as the Tories, they would be sending a message to the country, a message disastrous for their reputation, that coalitions don’t work because they are inherently unstable and the Lib Dems are fundamentally unreliable. Were the Tories, having solemnly committed themselves to a five-year partnership in the national interest, to trigger an early election with a view to shafting the Lib Dems, they would look unprincipled, opportunistic and untrustworthy.
Those are the centripetal forces which keep the parties together and some of them seem to me to be pretty powerful. Pulling in the other direction are centrifugal forces which make the relationship more and more stressed. Some of these are also rather powerful. Time is one enemy of the coalition. The longer they spend together, the more the partners become annoyed by the things they really don’t like about each other. Some Tories and Lib Dems are still enjoying each other’s company in government, but for others it is a daily reminder of their differences with each other – over Europe, over human rights, over immigration, to name just three on a long list. Tories are increasingly angered by what they see as Lib Dem attempts to make Nick Clegg’s party look and feel good at their expense. In his conference speech today, Mr Clegg describes the Conservatives as “bound and gagged by vested interests” and claims that the Lib Dems “are the only true One Nation party” – two lines they won’t like at Number 10.
From below, there is swelling backbench and grassroots pressure on the leaders to be more aggressive. It is now an established ritual at prime minister’s questions that a Tory MP will get to his or her feet to demand that David Cameron shows Nick Clegg who wears the trousers in their marriage. Lib Dems contrastingly complain that their leadership doesn’t say no often enough to the Conservatives. The tortuous dealings over the health service have not done either leader any good with their respective parties. The prime minister looks weak to many of his MPs for having bent to Lib Dem demands, but the Lib Dem leader doesn’t get much credit from his side because they, along with a lot of other people, think the NHS bill should have been euthanised altogether.
The risk of advertising their differences more combatively is that it will whirl out of control to the point where it damages the coalition in the eyes of the public and destroys its internal cohesion. “We have to be very careful that we don’t let every decision turn into a battle,” says one Lib Dem strategist. “If that happens, we will go into a downward spiral as a government.”
One terrain on which these tensions could explode into open warfare is the future of the House of Lords. There is no relish for reform on the Tory side and a lot of plain bafflement that Nick Clegg should choose to make a priority of an issue of marginal concern to most voters. Even some of the Lib Dem leader’s colleagues think he is embarked on a cause that is both distracting and probably doomed. “I’d be doing other things,” says one senior Lib Dem. To which another Lib Dem retorts: “Liberals are in government for the first time in 70 years. If not now, when?”
After the crushing failure to change the voting system for the Commons, Mr Clegg would like to be able to go into the next election saying that at least one significant constitutional advance was achieved as a result of his party being in government.
Fierce resistance in the Lords is to be expected. Politicians who were once ardent advocates of a fully democratic Parliament often turn into great admirers of the Upper House once they have parked their cheeks on the claret benches. Mr Clegg could find that he cannot even carry a majority of Lib Dem peers behind him. That will embolden the many Tory MPs for whom the main appeal of legislation on the Lords is that it will give them an opportunity to give a kicking to Mr Clegg. Then things could turn very poisonous indeed because the Lib Dems are threatening to retaliate by killing the proposed changes to constituency boundaries, which the Tories hope are worth about 20 extra seats to them at the next election.
That is a predictable prospective source of a breakdown. It is what Donald Rumsfeld would call a known known. The graver danger to the longevity of the coalition may lie in what the former US defence secretary would call known unknowns. Of these, Iran is the potential crisis point that probably most disturbs the prime minister and his deputy. The known is that there is mounting Israeli agitation for a military strike against Iran. An unknown is whether it will actually happen. Another unknown is whether the coalition could survive an event that would put an unprecedentedly intense strain on its unity.
Most Tories will instinctively want to support, and certainly not want to condemn, a strike against Iranian ambitions to possess nuclear weapons. Their view would be aggressively represented around the cabinet table, especially by George Osborne and Michael Gove. The vast majority of Lib Dems would take the diametrically opposite position. Even if that chasm could somehow be managed, the consequential surge in oil prices and shock to the world economy would blow apart many of the assumptions that the coalition is built on. There are some tentative signs that economic confidence is now growing a little, but as one cabinet minister puts it: “If Israeli missiles start flying in the Persian Gulf, all bets are off.”
It is a sobering thought for David Cameron and Nick Clegg that the fate of their coalition could be determined in the Straits of Hormuz. It is a frightening thought because neither man has the power to do anything about it.
from Andrew Rawnsley