Parlour games?

The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt recently wrote that the ongoing phone-hacking scandal and Prime Minister David Cameron’s closeness to central players in the Murdoch empire (e.g. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson) leaves him vulnerable to having Nick Clegg “pull the plug” not on the coalition, but on Cameron himself:

This is where the eyes of Lib Dems really light up. If damaging details emerge Clegg could go to Cameron and say that his party is deeply committed to the coalition but it can no longer serve under him as prime minister. At this point Cameron has to decide: does he sacrifice his career to save the coalition, paving the way for another Tory to take his place as prime minister, or does he soldier on as leader of a deeply unstable minority administration?

Lib Dems are enjoying the prospect of bringing down Cameron. It would allow them to go into the next election saying they had saved two cherished British institutions – the NHS and the office of the prime minister.

In fairness, Watt admits that this is “the remotest of remote prospects”, “all very far-fetched and belongs in the world of a fantasy parlour game”. I would tend to agree with that, and wonder why Watt bothered to posit the possibility of this occurring.

There is no doubt that Cameron has been weakened by this scandal, and things could possibly get worse for him, as Watt notes. However, I wonder if the Liberal Democrats really would have anything to gain by forcing Cameron to resign.

The coalition government came about largely because of Cameron. There were, and are, a fair number of both Tory MPs and Tory supporters who would have preferred that the Conservatives govern on their own as a minority government, and believe that the party has made too many compromises in order to satisfy the Liberal Democrats. There are also a fair number of Conservative party supporters who have never really liked David Cameron, and who don’t think he’s sufficiently right-wing, if the comment sections on traditionally pro-Conservative media sites such as the Telegraph, ConservativeHome and the Spectator are anything to go by.

If the Lib Dems did present Cameron with an ultimatum such as the one Watt puts forward, and Cameron did decide to step down, I don’t know who might emerge as the new party leader. Someone the Lib Dems could still work with, such as George Osborne? Or someone far more “traditionally conservative” such as David Davis? There is no guarantee that the new leader would be as willing to continue with a coalition, and the Liberal Democrats could find themselves in an even more difficult situation.

The Liberal Democrats are still struggling in the polls. If they attempted a coup against Cameron, it seems to me that regardless the outcome, it would result in a general election. If, when presented with such an ultimatum, Cameron refused to resign, the Lib Dems would have to pull out of the coalition. A Conservative minority government could then easily be defeated in a confidence vote, resulting in an election that would most likely be won by Labour and that would also most likely see the Lib Dems decimated. If Cameron did agree to step down, and was replaced by someone far more traditionally Tory, it might become impossible for the Lib Dems to continue in the coalition, which would force them to pull out, which then would most likely lead to an election, or the new leader might decide to call an election to seek a new mandate. Either way, this would spell major trouble for the Liberal Democrats.

Watt may be right when he states that:

But nobody should forget that relations between Cameron and Clegg changed forever when the prime minister – in the eyes of his deputy – broke his words to allow the No campaign in the AV campaign to turn on him.

Clegg is not out for revenge. But any warmth he felt towards Cameron evaporated for good in the spring.

This does not, however, mean that the two cannot continue to work together. And I am not entirely convinced that the relationship between Clegg and Cameron has soured that much. The Constitution Unit’s interim report on the inner workings of the coalition, released in June of this year, indicates that the two continue to work well together. As stated in the press release:

Despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, the Constitution Unit’s research on how the coalition works shows that it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness.

I agree with Watt that the prospect of this possible power play against Cameron by Clegg is extremely remote. I can’t see that there would be much, if anything, for the Lib Dems to gain from such a move. Cameron, as far as I can tell, remains conmitted to the idea of coalition government; many in his party, including many MPs, less so. And I don’t think such a plot is in the making, given that even more left-wing members of the Lib Dems are refraining from directly attacking Cameron. If anything, a weakened Cameron might well strengthen the hand of the Lib Dems within the coalition; ousting him would more likely than not leave the Lib Dems in a more vulnerable position.

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