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Whatever happened to all the intra-Coalition concessions?

By Peter Hoskin
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Have the Tories snubbed the Lib Dems over the future of Trident, as the Guardian suggests today? Downing Street would certainly have us believe not. According to them, Philip Hammond’s announcement of a £350 million contract aimed at renewing our nuclear deterrent is all part of the Coalition’s plan. “As the Defence Secretary has made very clear, we are progressing on the design and development,” quoth a spokesman earlier, “The decision on construction will not be taken until 2016.”

But when you read what Mr Hammond said today, you can understand why Lib Dems — opposed to a like-for-like replacement for Trident — might be afeared. “Our continuous submarine-based nuclear deterrent is the ultimate safeguard of our national security and the government is committed to maintaining it, both now and in the future,” is how it put it in his official statement. And, elsewhere, he attacked those who would seek to upset a system that has been in place for 43 years, claiming that they cannot predict what threats the UK will face in “20, 30, 40 or 50 years’ time”.

So, little wonder why Nick Clegg felt a need to respond thus: “The idea of a like-for-like entirely unchanged replacement of Trident is basically saying we will spend billions and billions and billions of pounds on a nuclear missile system designed with the sole strategic purpose of flattening Moscow at the press of a button.” This is rather a sore point between the two parties in Government.

Yet the main reason I mention all this — apart from it being noteworthy in itself — is because it completes a significant run. A month-and-a-half ago, I produced a list of the major concessions that the Tories could make to the Lib Dems in return for, say, support for the boundaries review. But in the intervening period, around the party conferences, there’s been even more reason to believe that none of those concessions will ever happen. One of those concessions was Trident. Here are the other five, with a bit of commentary on how they’ve been knocked back:

i) Fewer benefit cuts… The Lib Dems didn’t like the idea of £10 billion in extra benefit cuts, for the couple of years after the next election, even when George Osborne merely mooted it during his Budget speech this year. But the Chancellor, in tandem with Iain Duncan Smith, has since confirmed that those £10 billion of cuts are something that he’s actually aiming for.        

ii) …unless they are cuts to Universal benefits. This one seemed particularly unlikely even when I wrote my original post. In a session of PMQs before the summer break, David Cameron pointed out that, “At the last election I made a very clear promise about bus passes, about television licences, about winter fuel payments. We are keeping all those promises.” And Downing Street subsequently suggested that those promises might persist past 2015. That position doesn't seem to have changed.

iii) A wealth tax. In the words of George Osborne, speaking to the Mail on Sunday at the start of Tory conference: “We are not going to have a mansion tax, or a new tax that is a percentage value of people’s properties. ... Nor will there be a wealth tax or annual tax on assets, temporary or otherwise. It is completely unenforceable. It would become a tax avoider’s charter.”

iv) Party funding. Would the Tories change their position on party funding to force the boundaries review through? In truth, the answer to that question is still unclear, although Grant Shapps has denied that a deal has been discussed, and Nick Clegg has also spoken out against the possibility of it happening.

v) Immigration caps. From a lengthy passage defending the immigration cap in Theresa May’s speech at party conference: “[Some people] argue that our cap on economic migration makes us less competitive – but the limit stops economic migration getting out of control; it hasn’t been reached once since it was introduced. ... I agree that we need to support our best colleges and universities and encourage the best students to come here – but to say importing more and more immigrants is our best export product is nothing but the counsel of despair. ... We were elected on a promise to cut immigration, and that is what I am determined we will deliver.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Tories won’t concede anything to the Lib Dems from now on. Things change; policies can be tweaked; there are no doubt other concessions that Clegg & Co. will seek; and so on and so on. But it does suggest how the Coalition might operate from here on in, with both sides keener to mark out the differences that exist between them on major issues, and not muddy the territory in between. Rather than big concessions either way, the Coalition might be held together more by happy cooperation in policy areas such as those I also listed last month.

The question is whether this is a positive thing, overall, from a Conservative perspective. Without concession, the boundary changes may really be dead for this Parliament. But without concession, the Tories might also be a more distinct proposition come the next election. Is this good? Is this bad? I’m keen to hear your thoughts.


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