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Will there be another Con-Lib Coalition? The reasons to think not outweigh the reasons to think so

By Peter Hoskin
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Cam Clegg

Blame it on the heat or whatever, but we’re spending a lot of time talking about the shelf-life of the Coalition at the moment. There was my post last Saturday, itself a distillation of articles by Matthew Parris and Simon Heffer, about when the Tories and Lib Dems should split apart. That was followed, on Sunday, by Graham Brady and Bernard Jenkin advocating a split next year. And subsequently both Paul Goodman and Steve Richards have written columns about the prospect of another Coalition after 2015. It’s almost as though we’re less than two years away from an election, and the whole thing has become a pressing concern.

By way of summarising some of the current arguments, I thought I’d produce a quick list of the reasons to think that there will be another Con-Lib Coalition after the next election, and the reasons to think that there won’t be. Of course, as with much political soothsaying, this is based on how things look now. The overriding determinant of whether or not there will be another Coalition is simply the next election result. A strong Conservative majority, or a strong Labour majority, could reduce everything below to naught. But I hope you’ll read it anyway…

Reasons to think that there WILL be a Con-Lib Coalition after 2015
  • Nick Clegg. I’ve said this plenty of times before and I still believe it: Nick Clegg is a more natural bedfellow for the Tories, and particularly Cameroonian Tories, than for Labour. This was true before the last election, when, without many people noticing, Clegg corralled his party towards the centre-right with a three-pronged emphasis on tax cuts, fiscal restraint and public service reform. And it’s remained true in Coalition. He still has the same political make-up as he did in 2010. And he is still a particularly vituperative critic of Labour and all their works. Were he to remain Lib Dem leader after 2015, it’s unlikely he would gambol happily into the Miliband paddock.
  • Unfinished business. Broadly speaking, there are three major areas of political overlap between the Tories and the Lib Dems: deficit reduction, welfare reform and schools reform. And, again broadly speaking, these are this current Government’s three defining tasks. But there’s another quality to them, too. As I wrote in a column last year, they are all scheduled to reach important landmarks in 2017. That’s when the structural deficit is expected to enter surplus. It’s when, all going to plan, the Universal Credit will be fully introduced. And it’s when Gove’s new exams will be taken for first time. Were the Lib Dems to side with Labour after the next election, they could say goodbye to all that, and much else that the Coalition has put in place. Would they really want to?
  • Electoral reality. We should all know the score by now: despite the Tories’ beach ball bounce into the summer, David Cameron still faces one helluva task at the next election. Thanks to the peculiarities of Britain’s boundary system, the Conservatives would require a seven-point lead in 2015 just to scrape a majority. Whereas, right now, if you take all the recent polls together, they’re probably seven points behind Labour. So rein in your expectations, folks: another hung parliament is probably a more likely outcome than a Tory majority. Which leaves Cameron with, as Paul put it in his Telegraph article this week, a choice: “Should he strain for the bare Tory majority which is scarcely possible, or plan for a more practicable outcome – a second coalition?” You can bet, pragmatist that he is, he’ll go for the second option.

Reasons to think that there WON’T be a Con-Lib Coalition after 2015

  • The other electoral reality. Of course, there’s another way of looking at those harsh electoral facts I mentioned above: even if there is another hung parliament, it’s more likely that Labour will be the largest party within it. Judging by the last set of coalition negotiations, this wouldn’t necessarily mean that the Lib Dems would sidle over to Ed Miliband – but it would make Miliband the favourite for their affections. Indeed, Clegg has already suggested that he’d put aside “personal likes and dislikes” after such a result, for “the Liberal Democrats would need to do their duty”.
  • Friends of Vince. It’s been quite some time since the friends of Vince Cable – aka, Lord Oakeshott – took to newsprint to slather praise on their man, but that would surely change if the Lib Dems underwhelm at the next election. A few well-placed endorsements here, some slashing and dicing there, and Cable could even ascend to his party’s throne. This is a scenario that I’ve imagined before, and it carries one obvious implication: the Lib Dems would become much friendlier towards the Labour party. Cable, we know, is both politically and personally closer to Miliband than Clegg is. Going off the latest Liberal Democrat Voice poll, something similar could be said of the party’s activists as well.
  • It’s personal. But it might not require a Cable leadership for the Lib Dems to nuzzle up to Labour. As I pointed out above, Clegg has already said that he’d put aside his personal likes and dislikes to deal with Miliband – but the thing is, there’s actually a growing amount of “like” between the pair. As we know, the days when the Labour leader shunned his Lib Dem counterpart are long gone, to be replaced with “more understanding and even respect”. Sure, it remains true that Clegg is no natural friend for Labour, but even small shifts in the atmospheric pressure can make a diference. As Andrew Adonis makes clear in his 5 Days in May, the testy relationship between Clegg and Gordon Brown, and the easy one between the former and Cameron, went some way to scuppering a Lab-Lib coalition in 2010. 
  • Those red lines. Another reason why a Cable leadership might not be necessary: despite the political overlap between Clegg and Cameron, there is political difference, too – and that difference is becoming more and more significant. We've seen it in recent weeks with Europe, Trident and benefit cuts. But what matters isn't so much that the blue team would do one thing and the yellow another, but whether either side would budge during coalition negotiations. In other words, where will the "red lines" be come the next election? From what we're seeing, there's a chance that the Tories' and Lib Dems' red lines will strangle the possibility of easy union. Whereas Labour and the Lib Dems are increasingly lining up together, as it were.   
  • Backbench discontent. Simple fact is – after years of the current Coalition, during which they feel their party's self-identity has been eroded – many Tory backbenchers would prefer minority government, and some Lib Dems would prefer coaltion with Labour. Even if Cameron and Clegg want to renew their vows, they will have to do so against the preferences of their colleagues. Or at least change a whole load of minds.

So, three reasons to believe there will be another Con-Lib Coalition after the next election, and five to believe there won’t be – and I figure that’s about right. My own position, more or less explicit in posts such as this and this, is that the Tory leadership should be working to lay the ground for another Coalition, but I don’t think they’ve been doing enough in that regard. The potential for another Con-Lib union, and even for the current Con-Lib union, is not what it once was.


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