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Clegg's treatment of Elizabeth Truss's childcare plans throws a harsh light on the Coalition's future

By Paul Goodman
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Roy Jenkins used to argue that the Conservatives dominated British politics during the last century - and mustn't be allowed to do so in this one.  He went on to maintain that the two parties of the left - the Liberal Democrats and Labour, as he saw it - should work together to keep the Tories out of office.  When the voters returned a hung Parliament in 2010, David Cameron could have opted for a minority government.  Instead, he chose coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  I suspected at the time that part of his aim was to do a Jenkins in reverse: to ensure that his party and Nick Clegg's worked together to keep Labour out of office, and in doing so begin to rebuild his own party's Parliamentary dominance.

Working together, though, means coherence.  And a problem even since the Cameron-Clegg rose garden love-in, brutally accentuated by the referendum defeat of AV, is that the blue and yellow teams are not natural partners.  On economic matters, they have come closer together since the rise of the Orange Bookers.  But on social and constitutional ones - the gut issues that move hearts as well as minds - their instincts and dispositions are different.  When it comes to welfare, crime, immigration, Europe, the Lords, and the voting system, the two parties march to the beat of different drums.  On these issues and most others, the most natural partner for Nick Clegg's party is Labour.

Set against the sweep of this landscape, Clegg's blocking of Elizabeth Truss's childcare plans, reported on Newsnight yesterday evening, is a small detail.  The Daily Mail picks the story up this morning.  But it is a sign of how awkward the partnership has become, and how vulnerable it is to gusts of feeling in either party.  It is also a reminder of how out of date the idea of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat pact, which was floated three years ago by some Tory backbenchers, seems now (instead, some are now backing a Conservative-UKIP one: the same people, in some cases).

The Education Minister wants to reduce staff/child ratios in nurseries for months to cut costs for parents.  The plans are only a few weeks away from implementation.  But at this late stage, the Deputy Prime Minister is blocking them.  It's true that these Whitehall manoevres are inevitable when there are coalition governments, and indeed minority ones.  None the less, the Liberal Democrats have made a bit of a habit of blocking agreed plans late in the day: the health bill was a classic example.  The Conservative take in government is that this happens, all too often, without any alternative being proposed.

Given these difficulties, it's to the Coalition's credit that it's been able to agree major reforming programmes for the Queen's Speech on social care and pension reform.  That Cameron has been able to push his immigration bill is a sign that the Liberal Democrats don't get everything their own way.  But if relations between the two parties have been tense to date, how much more so are the likely to get as the election approaches?  One Minister with a controversial portfolio told me last week that he has only a year to get his plans through.  After that, the two parties will move to pre-election mode.  By late 2014, the Coalition will have ground to a halt.

And by that time, calls from backbench Conservatives for Cameron to move radical bills in the Commons, or else to let them to do so themselves, will have reached a crescendo - particularly on the ECHR, welfare, immigration, and the EU.  As I've argued before, it therefore makes sense for Downing Street to start planning ways of loosening the whipping in the last six months of this Parliament, and letting Tory MPs, in effect, float the next Conservative manifesto.  However, the Prime Minister may be as dependent on the Liberal Democrats to stay in office during the next Parliament as he is in this one - which is not a much of basis for backbench confidence and trust.


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