Monday, 16 July 2012

Cameron and Clegg need each more than ever

All together now: “Paaaaarliament’s out. For. Summer.” Who will be the most relieved? Probably both of them. It’s been several months to forget for the coalition. Cue a summer of recriminations, backstabbing, briefings, and counter-briefings.

The Tories, in particular the school of 2010, pin the blame on those pesky Lib Dems, getting in the way of them being able to force through proper Conservative policies. Funnily enough, many of them accuse David Cameron of much the same. The saner wing of the Tories are easier to please, recognising that being in coalition demands compromise, and much of the government’s agenda is still being pursued anyway.

The Lib Dems are on the verge of blowing a fuse. Any opportunity they get to show the electorate that there is in fact more than one party in government, that the authentic voice of the Liberals is on its way, seems to fall by the wayside. Constitutional reform, no matter how important (very, if you care about having a genuinely democratic and representative system) just doesn’t cut it with the public, and gets drowned out by the usual “we should be focusing on the economy and jobs,” criticism.

The media now has a good couple of months to speculate about the coalition’s future, which should keep them amused. Dead before the next election, according to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, a body of backbench Tory MPs, very much on the right of the party:
"I think it would be logical and sensible for both parties to be able to present their separate vision to the public in time for the public to form a clear view before the election.”
Some have taken to threats on Twitter, with Tory MP Stewart Jackson promising the Lib Dems political annihilation if they hold the government hostage on Lords reform:
“Memo to bolshy Lib Dems: Break deal on boundary changes and you'll be out of government the next day and maybe for ever. That vote has consequences too."
Senior Lib Dems, such as Sir Menzies Campbell, fret that not getting through at least one of their constitutional pet projects would further damage the party in the eyes of its supporters. Others gaze forlornly into the future and wonder if it’ll be possible to count on two hands the number of Liberal MPs left after permanent coalition scarring.
It’s no surprise then that as the coalition heads towards half-time, Clegg and Cameron seem to increasingly find comfort in each other. Their latest public display of affection comes in the form of a £9 billion rail investment package for the north of England. The Lib Dem leader can probably take a little more solace in the fact that Cleggites seem to be a lot more loyal (in public at least) to their man than the wavering Cameroons. Much of the venom directed at the former has come from the public and Labour.
It is Cameron’s rapid fall from grace that should most trouble Conservatives. It was, after all, his rebranding of the party that got them into government (that, and of course other factors, notably Gordon Brown). It was no longer shameful to vote Tory (it’s all relative of course). As I’ve argued on these pages before, the Tories give the impression of a party who were told they only had a few weeks to prepare for government, and not the five years they actually had.
Cameron seems to have no answer to Britain’s economic woes and rising unemployment. All he offers the country is a recipe of cuts and more cuts. Not much of a sell on the doorstep.
Many Conservatives question his Conservatism, calling for a return to bread and butter issues. Ex-Cabinet minister, David Mellor, speaking for many of the party’s grass-roots, decries the current state of the party:
“I think they’re desperate for David Cameron to show fundamental Conservative credentials.
“The worry is for a lot of Tories is that David Cameron is not enough of a Tory...why vote for this pale sad shadow of what the Tory party used to be.
“I think the Tory party is rather ripping itself apart now because of the sense that David Cameron is a prisoner of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.”
But, it seems that David Cameron understands the electoral arithmetic more than most, with the latest projections showing that under current boundaries, a huge swing of 10.5% would be needed just to deliver his party an overall majority. This falls to 7.6% under the proposed new boundaries. Is it any wonder the Conservatives are so keen to see this piece of legislation go through? Cameron needs to calculate whether this is more or less likely in coalition. Considering the Tories trail Labour by anything from eight to ten points, his interest lies in keeping the coalition together, and hoping for a significant upturn in the economy.
For Nick Clegg, it’s a question of enjoying it (or not) whilst it lasts. If polls are to be believed, armageddon awaits. Convincing a sceptical electorate that the Lib Dems have tempered the worse Tory instincts will be a priority in the lead up to 2015. No easy task. A change in leader would certainly help.
Both men face enormous challenges, both within and outside their parties. It is within their interests to keep things going. Calls by some for a snapshot election, possibly in the autumn or next spring, will surely be resisted by both leaders. Reality dawns.
London mayor Boris Johnson summed things up perfectly when he said that the coalition was ‘doomed to succeed.’ That’s pretty much how I feel too.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Monday 16th July 2012

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