Steve Richards: The Coalition is a freak, a one-off

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The Independent Online

The surprise is not how badly the two parties within the Coalition are getting on, but how well. The durability is at least as marked as the inevitable fragility. Yet, increasingly, I sense that this coming together of two parties at a national level will be a freakish one-off rather than the start of a pattern even if, as is likely, the next election produces another hung parliament.

On Radio 4's Week in Westminster, I interviewed the former Defence Minister, Nick Harvey, one of the Liberal Democrats who lost his job in the reshuffle. He suggested that the Lib Dems would think very carefully before entering another national coalition.

In making his case, he spoke of a conference that took place several months after the formation of the Coalition with their counterparts in coalitions across Europe. According to Harvey, one message from their European equivalents came through loud and clear. For coalitions to work, virtually every policy has to be agreed for a full term during the post-election negotiations. Equally important, every policy area where there can be no agreement must be firmly established and clearly thought through. The scale of such negotiations explains why in some countries coalitions are not formed until several months after an election.

But UK politics does not allow for time. Five days was pushing it after the last election as the two sides negotiated conditions. The impatient, restless culture demands a Cabinet in place almost immediately. Any pause is seen as a sign of weakness and generates panic. Yet time is what is needed in such circumstances.

Yet imagine the political storms brewing if there is another hung parliament. Would David Cameron be safe as a leader who had failed to secure an overall majority again? After the traumas of the past few years, could the Liberal Democrats even contemplate another Con/Lib coalition? But could they really switch to a Lib/Lab coalition, rushing into an administration that would partly seek to reverse some of what had been implemented by the Con/Lib government?

There are other reasons why national coalitions for the UK are rare. Although the next election might well be close, the defeat of the referendum on electoral reform means we retain a voting system that usually leads to one party winning an overall majority. That is one of the reasons the two bigger parties are broad coalitions in themselves.

David Cameron leads a party with a substantial and noisy number to the right of him. In the Labour Party, there are ultra-Blairites close in policy terms to Cameron and the Orange Book Liberal Democrats, while Ed Miliband still has voices to the left of him even though he is to the left of those that still regard Tony Blair as their hero. In those countries where coalitions are the norm, parties tend to be more narrowly defined. Here when a single party is elected to power, it is already a coalition.