I usually forbear from discussing mainstream Westminster politics here. I’m going to do so now out of frustration at some of the twaddle that is being talked about the negotiations between the various parties about the future government, and at the failure of those who are commenting to talk about some important points.
First, although some seem frustrated with the speed of events, these events are actually happening at breakneck speed. Coalition formation, and similar negotiations in other systems commonly take a month or six weeks. That’s about how long it took in Wales in 2007, and how long the Germans usually take. Doing such processes in a few days to meet newspaper deadlines or the concerns of the financial markets is in fact very rushed. As the decisions involve significant strategic concerns for all the parties, and huge ones for the Liberal Democrats, it’s little wonder that they take longer than those with journalistic deadlines might like.
Second, those of us interested in devolution will be struck by the parallels between the position of the Lib Dems now and of Plaid Cymru in 2007. Like the Lib Dems, Plaid had two options for government; it negotiated with both sides, and in the course of doing so appeared visibly to grow as a party capable of making tough decisions with long-term strategic ramifications. Somewhat like the Lib Dems, Plaid had a choice between its heart and its head. In that case, though, the heart was for the rainbow coalition with the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, which Plaid would have led as the largest party. The head was for a government with Labour, as one more likely to deliver Plaid’s goals (notably a referendum on primary legislative powers) and which would also be more stable. The head won out. It’s an irony that it was the perceived instability and unreliability of the Lib Dems as a partner then that made them an unattractive partner.
Those interested in the story of what happened in Wales in 2007 will find a lot of material in the archives of the Western Mail. John Osmond’s book Crossing the Rubicon (available here) is a good summation of what happened, informed by interviews with key players carried out just after the events. But at the time the blog ‘Blamerbell Briefs’ was essential reading, and that’s still available here.
Third, it looks to me as if the Conservatives have over-reached in their pitch to the Lib Dems, at least initially. Any deal with them would be hard for the Liberal Democrats to swallow. While there are similarities between the parties’ policies and programmes, most of these are between low-priority bits of the Tory manifesto and second-order bits of the Lib Dem one. (The ideas behind Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ have been prominent in Lib Dem thinking for some time, but during the campaign it became unclear how deeply attached the Conservatives, or Cameron himself, were attached to them.) There are obviously huge divisions on issues such as the European Union and defence as well as PR, and also of electoral interest. That means that the Conservatives would need to make a tempting positive offer to persuade the party as a whole to do the deal. But rumour initially was that the Tories offered only three Cabinet seats (transport, home affairs and chief secretary to the Treasury) to the Lib Dems. Depending on the size of the Cabinet, that’s no more than 15 per cent of posts, for a party contributing 15 per cent of the total size of the coalition. That may sound ‘fair’, but it’s axiomatic everywhere else that the smaller party in a coalition gets more than its proportionate share of seats, to encourage it to take part. After all, the larger party wouldn’t be in office either,without such a concession. The fact that only one of the posts was a first-rank one won’t have helped much, nor will the fact that these weren’t by and large areas of prime concern to the Lib Dems. Indeed, the Chief Secretary’s job – parcelling out the cuts in public spending, but not really able to determine their scope – will be a particularly poisoned chalice in this government.
Similarly, although the Tories have moved on electoral arrangements, all they have offered is a referendum on the alternative vote. The alternative vote may be preferential but it isn’t very proportional so doesn’t meet the key Lib Dem requirements. Even then, there are two important conditions on that. One is that it’s dependent on there being a formal coalition – it won’t happen if the arrangement is weaker than that. The other is that the Tories would be free to campaign against the proposal. The problem is that referendums seldom succeed if the government calling them doesn’t actively support the proposal. That referendum would in reality be doomed to fail – and would no doubt then be used by the Conservatives to argue against any change in electoral arrangements for some time to come.
This isn’t meant to damn the Tories for their strategy. The party needs to balance the interests of its various wings, and clearly the traditionalist and Thatcherite rights are uneasy about the deal. But if the Conservatives really were intent on securing a quick coalition with the Lib Dems, it would need to offer more. It looks to me as if its tactic is more one of manipulation than one of charm – note, for example, George Osborne’s attempt to exclude looser arrangements than a formal coalition in his interview on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme earlier, available here. It’s perhaps little wonder that the idea of a minority coalition with Labour is attractive, even if it would by definition be a minority, and proposals on PR would not attract support from a significant number of Labour MPs.
Fourth, the criterion of ‘strong and stable’ government that’s being used may be an oxymoron, or a dilemma. They appear to be mutually incompatible. Although Nick Clegg first used the phrase, Conservative spokesmen such as George Osborne (in that ‘Today’ interview) have adopted it enthusiastically. But the very scale of a coalition for four years is pretty daunting, especially for parties like the Lib Dems and Tories who are divided by more than unites them. An alliance between them might be strong (with clear objectives and likely to achieve them) or stable (durable, but based on the lowest common denominator between them and so not able to achieve much). Getting both is much, much trickier. A more limited, short term arrangement with specific objectives is more likely to be achievable than a long-term agreement covering everything. It would also create the scope to build trust between the parties, if the aim were to lead to a longer alliance between them.