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Why the Coalition will stop working in three years to this month

By Paul Goodman
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It may collapse before then, of course, though I believe that this is unlikely.  But providing it doesn't, we tend to believe that there is only one other possible outcome for the Government: that it continues, more or less as now, until 2015.  However, matters aren't quite that simple.

Roll forward the clock by three years to 2014, and imagine that the Coalition has survived.  There is a year before the next election.  The two Coalition partners are already looking ahead to it.  Policy work is being done.  The manifesto process for both parties is under way.  The polls show whatever they show.

But whatever they show, the Liberal Democrats won't have given up hope of holding the balance of power in a hung Parliament, even if their Commons representation looks to be decimated.  They have no other short-term strategic aim (and no medium-term one either, given the AV referendum result).

In four years' time, then, if not earlier, Liberal Democrat members of the Downing Street policy unit will have little motivation to work on new Government policies - since they can't be implemented within the remaining twelve months.

They will start looking for other job opportunities.  So will other Liberal Democrat functionaries within the Government, such as special advisers.  Their Conservative equivalents will do likewise, especially if the polls are bad for the party. You may say: this sort of thing happens before every election, so what's different?

What's different is that this is a Coalition Government, which means that Ministers will also head for the hills - or at least prepare to do so.  In particular, Liberal Democrat ones will be looking for a possible coalition with Labour after the 2015 poll.

Indeed, this will be their preferred option, since in the event of another hung Parliament they'll want to prove that they're not in the pockets of the Conservatives.  (Wanting to prove that they weren't in the pockets of Labour is part of the reason why this Coalition was formed in the first place.)

You can imagine what will happen next.  Liberal Democrat Ministers will start going soft on their Labour opposite numbers.  Liberal Democrat backbenchers will continue to go hard on Tory Ministers.  Senior Liberal Democrats will begin to praise Miliband and criticise Cameron.

There will be rumours of private channels of communications from the Labour leader's office to Cable, Hughes and Farron.  (I'm assuming that Huhne's gone, and possibly Clegg too, at least as Liberal Democrat leader.)  There will be secret meetings, which Fleet Street will try to stake out.

In short, the atmosphere between the two Coalition partners will increasingly mirror the poisoned one which prevailed immediately before the AV referendum.  There will be accusations and counter-accusations of bad faith.

In the Commons, Liberal Democrat MPs will have the main incentive to rebel, in order to prove to their constituents that they're "standing up to the Tories".  Cameron will be torn between appeasing them, on the one hand, and angering his backbenchers on the other, who will bad-mouth the "yellow bastards".

He thus risks counter-rebellions from his own MPs, sparking a debilitating cycle of further rebellions, protests, and counter-rebellions.  You may say: how's that different from now?  My answer is: because of the scale and pace of events - driven by the coming election.

And as that election approaches, Liberal Democrat MPs will have less incentive to tow their own party line, let alone Cameron's.  Mark Field wrote persuasively about this likelihood recently on his site.  Much the same may apply to a small number of their Tory counterparts.

One or two MPs may even quit altogether, forcing snap by-elections.  After all, they've no financial incentive to remain in the Commons until the end of the Parliament, because of the abolition of the resettlement grant.  Some will be able to afford to give their leaderships two fingers.

So, then: there is, in between the options of collapse and simple continuation, another one: institutional paralysis.  I usually fight shy of making political predictions, but if the Coalition and the Liberal Democrats survive in one piece until 2014, I expect it to start kicking, well, about this time in the year, or earlier.

If I were Downing Street, I'd be planning on a bare cupboard of a Queen's Speech for the Coalition's final year.  And not assume that any important measure will necessarily get through Parliament during it.  In theory, the Government will have a majority of about 70.  (I'm assuming some by-election attrition.)  In pratice, it may, at times, scarcely exist at all.

10.30am Update I gather that the ever-prescient Gary Gibbon reported yesterday on his blog that Gus O'Donnell has dusted down the file on "Confidence and Supply" - in case the Liberal Democrats pull out of the Coalition and take up that arrangement during the final period of this Parliament (or indeed before).  Annoyingly, the Channel 4 site isn't working properly, but I'll put the link up later if I can.


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