Too close for comfort?

As I’ve mentioned many times in various blog posts here, there is regular speculation in the UK media regarding the future of the coalition partners – will the coalition split up? Will the parties fight the next election as Coalition candidates under some form of electoral pact? Or will the two parties merge into one?

One of the more interesting pieces I’ve read of late is this column in the Spectator by Fraser Nelson, in which he argues that the parties have, in many ways, already merged.

He blames this, if blame is the word to use, largely on Conservative leader and PM David Cameron:

I suspect it is because the parties have become too close: they have behaved as merged parties, not coalition partners. The word ‘coalition’ has become synonymous with government now, becoming a proper noun. The phrase ‘ConDems’ is used by the Mirror to attack the government. They are seen as a joint entity. And rightly so: Cameron has not built an alliance of two parties with differing traditions. He has moved the two parties into a blender and flicked the ‘on’ switch. Everything is merged: the spin team, the departments, even the ‘political’ Cabinet has LibDems there. Where Blair and Brown used No10 to advertise the Labour Party, Cameron seldom mentions his party. ‘Conservative’, the C-word, is dropping out of the national vocabulary: it wasn’t even used at the Conservatives’ annual conference.


Cameron’s strategy has been to stress complete unity. There were no LibDem policies, no Tory policies: everything was a coalition policy, and defended as such. Even tuition fees. And tensions did not erupt: from welfare reform to school reform. There have been battles, but they are blue-on-blue. Critics of Clegg, myself included, have been impressed at his reforming credentials and the way he has taken the intellectual fight to Labour – on its poisonous definition of ‘fairness’ and on the progressive case for cuts. Unity may have been foisted on the two parties in government, but they have acted as one.

As Fraser goes on to explain, this reality is causing both parties problems as they attempt to fight the by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth. They are being forced to backpeddle somewhat – to try to remind people that it isn’t “The Coalition”, but rather Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. But even so – Cameron has been doing all he can to help the Liberal Democrats, who narrowly lost the seat in the May 2010 general election to Labour by 103 votes, even telling Conservative party activists to stay away from campaigning in the riding, which has been visited thus far by only one senior Conservative has visited the riding.

Of course, the reality of the coalition is probably somewhat less cozy than Fraser makes it seem. We’ve learned, thanks to the Daily Telegraph’s sting operation, that at least some Lib Dem ministers inside the government aren’t exactly in full agreement with some of the policy decisions made, and that they don’t necessarily agree with (or even like) some of their Tory colleagues, while Tory backbenchers are growing increasingly rebellious for reasons of their own. But it seems pretty clear to many that there is a great deal of complicity between those at the centre of the coalition government – namely Cameron, Nick Clegg, and those ministers closest to them. Tim Montgomerie, of ConservativeHome, as a piece in the the Daily Mail warning that if Cameron keeps appeasing Clegg, he’ll risk killing off the Conservative Party:

A few months ago these would have seemed extraordinary, even silly, questions, but there are influential ­people, close to David ­Cameron, who believe that today’s Coalition Government should become a permanent alliance between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

They see the Lib-Con ­partnership as the beginning of a historic realignment of ­politics — one that could deprive the Labour Party and the Tory Right of any chance of national power for years, if not decades, to come.

In the middle of Britain’s ­economic crisis you would hope that our ruling parties had more urgent priorities.

But over recent weeks, a ­succession of senior Tories, including Sir John Major, have floated the idea of this new Liberal-Conservative alliance.

I don’t know about killing off the Conservative party, but it does seem fairly obvious to anyone paying attention that Clegg and Cameron and those closest to them have more in common with each other than they do with the extremes of their respective parties. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that the parties will merge, or that they have merged into some sort of two-headed coalition beast.

We’re already seeing signs that Clegg and Cameron are attempting at least a partial “decoupling” to borrow from David Blackburn. Clegg in particular has stated rather unequivocally that the two parties will campaign as independent entities in the next election:

In his clearest statement yet, he flatly ruled out calls for the two parties to field joint “coalition candidates” in 2015 as a way of staving off defeats in marginal seats.

“Let me be absolutely clear once and for all,” he told the Evening Standard while travelling to campaign in the Oldham by-election. “The Liberal Democrats will fight the next election as we did the last — as an independent political party in every constituency in the country.”

Rejecting claims that the two leaders have been secretly plotting a merger, Mr Clegg called the Coalition a temporary arrangement, saying: “This is the right government for right now.”

While I enjoy speculating about this as much as the next political geek, I do think it’s far too early to be predicting what will happen in 2015 – assuming the coalition does indeed last that long. If the UK adopted a more proportional voting system (in other words, not AV), I think some sort of political realignment would indeed happen, with the Orange Book Lib Dems and the Cameroons joining forces. But under FPTP or even AV, I see little motivation for either party to seriously consider merging with the other. The Conservatives will still be eyeing the possibility of forming a majority government in their own right, and the Liberal Democrats may well simply be hoping to avoid electoral decimation.

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