Forward, say Cameron and Clegg. But to where?

Their confidence belies the fact they are the most trapped governing leaders since those that tried to rule in the late 1970s

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At the start of a new year David Cameron and Nick Clegg insist they march on with determined verve. They have no choice but to proclaim boldly. Imagine the frenzy if they admitted they were not masters of events, but near powerless figures navigating the tiny amount of space on the political stage still available to them. In politics leaders must pretend to be masterful when they are trapped by external events, the mood of their parties, the attitude of the media, the fragility of their majorities in parliament and the chaotic consequences of their early policies. Still looking remarkably fresh Cameron declares the Coalition is running on a full tank of gas and that it is full steam ahead. In reality he and Clegg are the most trapped governing leaders since those that tried to rule in the late 1970s.

Some of the factors that limit them are out of their control. They cannot wave a wand and cure the economies trapped in the eurozone. What happens to the US economy is not a matter for Cameron, let alone Clegg. As leaders they have only limited control over their parties, although Cameron could have done much more to challenge and change his if he had been inclined to do so when he was elected leader. If their parties are getting stroppy the two leaders must take heed. Behind in the opinion polls neither have the authority to ignore internal dissenters. Instead they must pay much attention, as they must to the mood of the Commons. They lead in a hung parliament. Blair, Thatcher, and to some extent Brown could be entirely relaxed about the Commons. They were in control there with mountainous majorities. Now Tory and Lib Dem backbench MPs have a degree of might if they choose to exert it. In the following 12 months, with the election some distance away, they are bound to do so, making their leaders sweat. Next year the election moves into view. MPs and party members will start to behave themselves then. For the leaders of the governing parties 2013 is the most dangerous in this parliament.

Road to 2015

Yet while their parties feel free to stir Cameron and Clegg are thinking already about the next election that both are determined to fight. The terrifying stakes of that political battle hem them in further now. Cameron will not be challenged before the election, but if he fails to win an overall majority for the second time he is finished. I sense that Clegg will lead his party too at the election, although some Liberal Democrats are far from sure. What is certain is that current opinion polls are dire for leader and party. From now on when policy-making is considered the two leaders will ask an additional constraining question: How will it affect our chances at the next election? There is nothing they can do about this. Tony Blair, who had far more freedom to roam around the political stage had he wished to do so, asked this question within hours of winning a landslide in 1997. The clock ticks towards the date when voters will deliver their verdict on the Coalition. Leaders cannot stop a clock from ticking.

Free will also plays its part in politics. What makes politics always fascinating and never dull is watching leaders make the most of the space available to them or failing to do so. Cameron’s moment of brilliance came when he created more space than he had earned after the last election by negotiating a Coalition in which most of his party’s radical reforms and economic policy could still be implemented. But the decisions made in those heady early days of the Coalition now ensnare Cameron and Clegg. Instead of displaying the expedient humility of leaders who have failed to win overall majorities they behaved as if they had all the space in the world, rushing through reforms and an economic policy that made Margaret Thatcher’s seem cautious. Now they are trapped by the consequences, above all the early decision to frame a narrative around austerity and the deficit that, it is clear already, will not end as they had hoped. The structural deficit will have been far from wiped out at the election.

Learn from the past?

The second half of a parliament can lead to a transformation of the voters’ mood. In the 1980s the Conservative governments led by Thatcher suffered bleak mid-term unpopularity and yet bounced back to win landslides. At their joint press conference yesterday Cameron and Clegg announced the outline of some worthy and, in some cases, potentially historic policies, not least in relation to a national system governing care for the elderly. But the proposals are tentative and unlikely to be fully formed by the time of the election. The clock ticks. The two set the course in the first six months. They acted radically, but largely by developing outdated policies from the 1980s and 1990s rather than responding more deeply to the dramatically changed circumstances of the global financial crisis of 2008. This always happens in politics. Frightened and bewildered rulers cling to what they know from the recent past even when that past is slipping away, challenged by apocalyptic events.

For Cameron and Clegg it is full steam ahead, but in a context in which both have almost no room to move.

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