How will the Coalition partners go their separate ways?

Summary

How will the Tories and Lib Dems make a clean break?

The kicking in the polls the governing parties took at the local government elections in May 2012 made things more than a little awkward for messrs Clegg and Cameron. Politicians from both parties have mentioned that mid-term elections tend to give the governing parties a rough ride. Recall too that the last local council elections before the 2010 general election for Labour were particularly difficult for Gordon Brown. Does this point to an implosion for the Coalition?

Fighting for fewer votes

Part of me still wonders what impact the weather had both in the run up to, and on the day of the local elections. Does rain really lower turnout? Given the prolonged economic crisis, I would have thought that more people might have wanted to have voted. But then I live in a political Twitter bubble.

Ed Miliband was right to highlight the issue in his recent speech in Harlow – noting that over 70% of voters there did not vote.

“I want to reach out and understand why you don’t trust any politicians, why you don’t believe any of us can answer the questions that you are facing in your life.

“I think there is a crisis of politics in this country, there is a crisis of people thinking ‘I’m not going to engage with politics, you’re all the same, you all break your promises’.”

The thing is, low voter turnouts are not new. In the 2001 general election the figures fell to a dreadful 59.4%. Will those voters come back, or are they lost for good? Should political parties read much into the percentages of the local election results given the low turnout? Can Clegg and Cameron take some heart in some of their traditional voters choosing to stay at home?

Restless backbenchers and activists

Anecdotally, Tory backbenchers seem to be more restless than their Liberal Democrat counterparts. Maybe it’s because there are more of the former than the latter. Tim Montgomerie’s article for ConservativeHome Tory MPs at war with each other makes for interesting reading – as do the comments about the site giving too much publicity to disloyal MPs. Should such discussion be aired in public or behind closed doors – as alluded to by Claire Perry MP? Brian Binley MP – a backbencher who sits on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee also had some choice words for the Conservative leadership in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

As far as the right of the Tory party is concerned, the Coalition isn’t right-wing enough. As far as their Coalition partners are concerned, it’s made for some difficult times for activists on the ground – especially on issues such as the NHS and higher education where in the mindset of some voters, they didn’t expect the Lib Dems to sign up for such policies and legislation. One notable victory for Labour in my neck of the woods was the defeat of Amanda Taylor in the Queen Ediths ward. I was still at secondary school and still had a paper round when Amanda was first elected, and was in what we all thought was a safe as houses seat…until the Tom Watson roadshow rolled into town. But the same could have been said for my ward – Coleridge (safe Labour) – until Chris Howell (who stood down in 2010) was elected for the Conservatives.

Understanding Kilroy’s Image Problem

For those of you familiar with Dead Ringers from 2004, that was the acronym they gave UKIP when Robert Kilroy Silk joined and took part in this party political broadcast. (He was gone in less than a year). Yet the party continues to be a thorn in the side of the Conservatives. Whether this will lead to MPs defecting – as indicated in this Andrew Neil interview – remains to be seen. Cameron’s managed to keep the right of his party in check for now, but for how much longer?

A handful of MPs defecting would not make a huge difference to parliamentary majorities – the Coalition still has a working majority of 83. Having recently red Gyles Brandreth’s diaries, unless the Coalition imploded I can’t see there being the problems that befell John Major in the mid 1990s, when MPs were being wheeled into the Commons on hospital beds or in dressing gowns to vote, in order to face down rebellious MPs. It therefore might be the case that defections by the most rebellious MPs might make the Coalition more stable as ministers would feel they no longer have to placate such MPs, while mindful they still have a workable majority.

Yet as we head closer to an election in 2015, will the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats want to make themselves more distinguishable from each other, and if so how?

Warsi Warsi everywhere…

I kind of feel sorry for her, being wheeled out onto every other news and current affairs programme to defend all this bad news. In part it’s due to the nature of our political system which formally separates “Government” from “Party Politics” – especially when it comes to civil service support. Hence on overtly party-political debates, the Tories wheel her out, and the Lib Dems turn to Tim Farron and Simon Hughes. Puffles’ Twitter feed last night showed a stream of tweets frustrated at Warsi appearing for what felt like the umpteenth time on Newsnight. It just feels like she’s being hung out to dry with next to no support from her fellow party members as far as appearing on the media circuit is concerned. Is the party that lacking on confident cerebral media performers who can engage in debate with journalists and a studio audience?

Similar points can also be said of the other political parties as far as national media coverage is concerned. For example I’d like to see both Julian Huppert (my local MP – Lib Dem for Cambridge) and Stella Creasy (Labour MP for Walthamstow) appearing far more regularly. I guess party organisers may not like that idea as the more politicians appear in the media, the harder it is for them to ‘control the message’.

A managed break up

This is where it’s going to get tricky for both Coalition parties. How do you try and distinguish yourselves from the other party without kicking sand in their faces? For the Lib Dems, the more flack they take from their Coalition partners, the less likely they will want to see the course – especially if at the same time they are taking further flack from the policies that they otherwise would not want to back. At the same time, there is still the convention of cabinet government, making it difficult for Conservative ministers to go public saying ‘We would love to do this but we are in a coalition so we can’t.’ There’s only so far in private that ministers can use this line to placate backbenchers – especially in the face of bad election results.

Separating party functions from government functions

The Lib Dems sort of do this with the role of Tim Farron. Less so with Sayeeda Warsi for the Tories who sits in the Cabinet. As well as being president of the minority party in the Coalition, not being in Cabinet may give Farron a freer rein to criticise Coalition policies than Warsi does.

One possible solution for both parties is to appoint/designate MPs who are not ministers with the responsibility of leading policy development and debate for the next general election and beyond. This may mean asking some ministers to step down for this purpose – but at the same time giving them the freedom to constructively criticise existing Coalition policies and their Coalition partners. e.g. ‘We haven’t been able to do X,Y and Z because we’re in Coalition, but if we win a majority then we will implement X, Y and Z’. What becomes tricky is if X, Y & Z involves repealing things that the Coalition implemented – tuition fees being an example.

Such a set up would make things tricky for Labour – who would you target and how? Do you go for the existing Coalition or do you go for the individual parties? While the results of the recent local government elections were nominally good for Labour, their challenge is to demonstrate they are an alternative administration. In particular this means individual politicians demonstrating they have the competence to hold ministerial office, and a series of policies that sit well together and are consistent with each other. There might be some individual strong performers and strong performances, but I’m not yet seeing an alternative government in their front bench.

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