Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Lib Dems are the big losers in the coalition

I wish the new Government well. There are some good policies in the Coalition agreement, some on political reform like PR for the Lords - though not the absurd 55% requirement in a vote of confidence - and on education (if Michael Gove uses the right levers). But one thing is clear: despite all the rantings and ravings of the Tory right, it is the Liberal Democrats that have been the clear losers. Cameron has played a blinder by convincing the world and the Lib Dems that he has had to make huge sacrifices to win this agreement.

First, the Lib Dems' power is limited. Nick Clegg as Deputy PM has settled for a desk in the Cabinet Office, but no real job. David Laws has a poisoned chalice implementing the cuts as chief secretary. Vince Cable has been sidelined on banking reform in the business department without the influence of Lord Mandelson. Danny Alexander has Scotland, a non-department. Only Chris Huhne has some influence at energy, but on nuclear power is stymied by his own party's opposition. The Lib Dem junior ministers are unlikely to have much of a role to play in each department, though they may prevent the wilder excesses of right-wing Tory ministers. Bizarrely, the Lib Dems accepted all this in preference to insisting on even one major office of state or spending department like education or health.

Second, on policy, as John Rentoul has pointed out, Clegg has been royally outmanoeuvred by Cameron. The pupil premium was Tory policy anyway: Michael Gove will be pleased to have some money for it. The £10,000 tax threshold will mean a middle class tax cut paid for by public sector savings, not a more progressive tax system (though economically a better approach, this is hardly what the Lib Dems wanted). The fixed term parliament suits Cameron as it ties in the Lib Dems. On the abstention votes on tuition fees, marriage tax or nuclear power, the Tories will win anyway with a 307-286 majority. And whether or not an AV referendum succeeds, the Tories will still be able to push through their gerrymander of English constituencies to make more of them Conservative. Cameron will be delighted to neutralise his right-wing, ditch crazy policies like the inheritance tax cut and avoid a distracting row in Europe.

Third, in return for the happy couple pix and a host of ministerial cars, they have destroyed their credibility with many of their own voters, particularly in areas like the South West where they were seen as a repository for anti-Tory votes and in Northern cities where their council base had already started to crumble. Many Lib Dem members are already joining Labour.

None of this is to suggest that the Lib Dems weren't right to enter a coalition deal. Indeed, they deserve some praise for being prepared to sacrifice their party for the sake of stable government. But anyone who thinks that they are the winners from the whole deal has been spending far too much time watching 24 hour news and reading the papers.

This post has been picked up by Iain Dale.


AD627 said...

"the Tories will still be able to push through their gerrymander of English constituencies to make more of them Conservative. "

The new boundaries will be determined by a disinterested commission. It is entirely clear that it is the current constituency sizes that are highly unfair to the Tories. They stand to gain simply from making the system a little less biased against them.

Carlos_B said...

I found this a refreshing piece from someone on the left-centre. The balance of benefits for the Lib-Dems will, it seems to me, be another of those things about which only time will tell. Surely the extent of the concessions has to be related to the relative size of the parties - numbers of seats and popular vote. Lib Dems have got a huge chunk of executive power if all the junior posts are included - 30% of their MPs (100 Conservatives would need jobs to be equivalent). Their seats are heavily concentrated regionally, but they have got a major share in national power -- and with it the first chance in a century to build popular support for actions and achievements, not just criticism and ideas. Nick Clegg will take a major role in reform legislation, and has the (much needed) time to devote to making the whole thing work. Plus he is a member of the new National Security Council. By treating LibDems as full, collegial coalition partners, the Conservatives have given LibDems an incalculable benefit. If the government is a success, they will rightly be able to claim a great deal of the responsibility.

btw - on the 55% dissolution provision. I assume you would prefer (as I would) that it be set higher. Say 66% - the level chosen by the Lab-Lib coalition when they brought in the same kind of measure in Scotland.

Anonymous said...

You missed another stroke of Tory genius. Giving the Lib-Dems so many ministerial places.

How so you may ask? Doesn't that actually show LibDem strength?

Well put it this way. It's unclear whether it is 20 in total or 20 on top of the 5 cabinet places. But nevertheless that gags a huge amount of the Lib-Dem Parliamentary party, especially when you take account that each of them will have a PPS from their party. Throw in the whips and you have even more. The Lib-Dem Parliamentary party could have as few as 4 backbenchers or 17 at most.

In a coalition government it's the splits with the smaller partner that can cause the most difficulties but by handing out so many sweeties to the Lib-Dems (and not fancy ones as you point out) Cameron has effectively neutered that direction of problems as any rebellions will be tiny.

He also leaves it open for any Tory "rebellions" to have the strength for him to convince Nick that they will have to give in.

The Lib-Dems have not thought this through at all. Their acceptance of an AV referendum - which is anathema to STV - will further exacerbate the view that they have been purely self-seeking in this whole enterprise. It will destroy them as a party and see many of them just become Tories.

Roger Thornhill said...

Are you surprised?

I have always said, waive half a dozen red boxes at the LibDems and they would come scampering.

This was their ambition. Get a hung parliament, horse trade and get their feet under polished tables so THEY can "do good".

Anonymous said...

As a Libdem party member, I agree with your assessment. We would have had more leverage from opposition, than we do now.

Zokko said...

At least the British people can now see what a lousy Government it has.

dangerdan said...

I completely disagree. I think that this coalition deal has placed the LibDems in the strongest position they have been in for years! Find out why here:

I only hope that the droves of LibDems who disagree with me and are flocking to the Labour party realise the error of their ways in five years time.