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No Matter What You Hear, Don’t Count on the British Coalition Lasting Five Years

- May 13, 2010

Despite the claims of Conservative and LIberal Democratic politicians that Britain’s first experiment with coalition government in decades will “prove more stable”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/05/fixed_term_parliament_the_magi.html than the last, my colleague “Andrew Richards”:http://www.march.es/ceacs/consejo/personales/personal.asp?id=17&Idioma=I offers up the following reasons to be skeptical of these claims:

bq. One week after the general election, Britain’s first coalition government since the Second World War has held its first Cabinet meeting. The new government enjoys a comfortable parliamentary majority of 76 (in fact, 81, given that Sinn Fein’s 5 MPs will not, as usual, take up their seats in the House of Commons), and the agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaderships which led to its formation was concluded, in the circumstances, remarkably quickly. Nick Clegg, who only entered parliament five years ago, becomes the most powerful Liberal politician since World War One Prime Minister Lloyd George, a colossus of 20th century British politics. With 5 of 23 Cabinet positions, the Liberal Democrats have finally entered the corridors of power after an absence of nearly 90 years.

bq. Yet the new coalition government is fraught with difficulties from the outset. Tory MPs seethe at their party’s failure to win an outright majority and will continue to baulk at the idea of any concession, however modest, on the issue of electoral reform. For their part, Liberal Democrat dissenters are already complaining that the Tory commitment to holding a referendum on the Alternative Vote system falls way short of the radical change they have long sought. The prospect of the coalition partners eventually campaigning on opposite sides of the issue is an interesting one, to put it mildly. In addition, the economic situation in Britain is dire, and the government’s first budget, due in June, will test to the limit Clegg’s claim to be able to deliver a fair deal in difficult circumstances. Will VAT rise and by how much? What exactly will be the compromise on taxation rates for low income earners? And above all, will the Tory campaign commitment to enacting drastic public deficit reduction measures _now_ prevail over that of the Liberal Democrats (shared, incidentally, with Labour) to delaying them until 2011? David Cameron was probably right to point out that no incoming government in modern times has been faced with such formidable economic challenges, but the political foundations for addressing them are extremely fragile. Forging a coherent and credible economic strategy will involve painful compromises for the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Liberal Democrat Business Secretary. They might pull it off for the June budget, but doing so for a full parliamentary term is another matter.

bq. For its part, Labour finds itself in a curious position. Gordon Brown’s offer to resign as party leader in September as a means of forging, in the meantime, a “progressive” coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats may have temporarily wrong-footed both Cameron and Clegg, but was soon undermined by opposition from within his own party. Not only did the parliamentary arithmetic not add up, but large elements of Labour remain deeply suspicious of the Liberal Democrats’ supposedly progressive credentials. Former Home Secretary David Blunkett’s description of the Liberal Democrats as having acted in recent days “like every harlot in history”, and former Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells’ labeling of them as “a bunch of opportunistic toerags” reveals the extent of visceral loathing that exists, at least in some Labour quarters, which would have made such a coalition unworkable. In opposition, Labour is in a position to regroup under a new, young, and intelligent leader, almost certainly in the shape of David Miliband. Moreover, in the course of the election campaign, the Governor of the Bank of England is alleged to have declared that whoever won would have to adopt economic measures so unpopular as to render themselves unelectable for a generation. Battered and bruised by 13 long years in power, Labour may yet be sitting pretty.

I would also welcome comments on what exactly it is people think Nick Clegg will be doing as “Deputy Prime Minister”. If Clegg is given real power in the position, then Torries angry with the coalition in the first place are likely to grow that much more resentful of an omnipresent veto player from the Lib-Dems at the highest level of power. On the other hand, if Clegg is not given real power, then his position in what could become a largely ceremonial role might be a potential lighting rod for potential LIb-Dem discontent at being marginalized more generally. As is my best understanding at the moment – based largely on listening to the BBC over the last 24 hours – there is not a real strong precedent for what exactly a Deputy Prime Minister is supposed to do, and especially one from a different part than the Prime Minister, in Britain. Also, to echo Andrew’s earlier point, the spectacle of a Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister on the opposite sides of a referendum campaign is bound to be at the very least serious fodder for the media and opposition.