It is no exaggeration to say that when the last general election produced a coalition, it came as a huge surprise. Three years on, that surprise remains almost as fresh as it was then. Deep down, we remain convinced that a coalition is practically impossible under our first-past-the-post system, and that coalition is something peculiar to the Continentals. We are doomed to swing from one majority government to another, with nothing in between.
In fact, despite all the forecasts of discord and collapse, the Coalition has proved remarkably durable. When there have been splits, they have had nothing on the venomous divisions between “wets” and “drys” in the Major government or between “New” and “Old” Labour under Tony Blair. Indeed, much of the criticism directed against this government has related not to any incoherence, but to the apparent closeness of the two party leaders and the sense that both have forgotten their party roots.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has repeatedly come under such fire. It began when he dropped his election pledge not to abolish university tuition fees, leaving his large student constituency (and their parents) feeling betrayed, and it will not stop before the next election. Criticism of Clegg, though, is not limited to policies. By entering government at all, he has had to suffer barbs about the dire fate that awaits junior partners in coalitions generally and accusations that he has sold his own, and his party’s, soul for a short-lived taste of power. At best, it is said, Clegg has ruined the election chances of the Liberal Democrats for decades to come; at worst, their very survival as a political force is threatened.
This seems too harsh. My own judgment is that Clegg and Vince Cable between them have not done too badly, not least in constraining the wilder ambitions of hardline Conservatism. The result is a Government, and a set of policies, that have been more attentive to the law, more humane, less Europhobic and greener than they would have been, even under a modernising, centrist Conservative Government led by David Cameron.
The greatest vindication of Nick Clegg’s decision to take his party into government, however, may still be to come. Over the past week, there have been persistent reports that the Cabinet is split on the foreign policy question of the day: whether to arm the Syrian rebels. Two weeks ago, Cameron went to Brussels to argue for the European Union not to extend its arms embargo on Syria, a move that would open the way for the supply of weapons to those seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. After a long, and by all accounts stormy meeting, Cameron emerged to claim victory. Although the decision was hedged about with caveats and many EU leaders expressed serious misgivings, the embargo was, in effect, lifted.
If Cameron had hoped to be met on his return as a conquering hero, however, he was disappointed. As The Independent reported, at least five Cabinet ministers, including Clegg, raised “serious reservations” about any move by Britain to increase its involvement in Syria. With backbenchers expressing concern as well, it is possible that Cameron will have to concede a vote in Parliament before the Syrian rebels are sent any arms.
There are ominous signs, though, that Cameron may be trying to shore up his more interventionist stance. The Foreign Secretary made a flying visit to Washington yesterday, where Syria – as well as, no doubt, intelligence matters – loomed large on his agenda. The US administration is also split about engagement in Syria, with much of the military establishment dead against. But you only have to think back to certain UK-US meetings in Washington in 2002 and 2003 to fear the potential damage from such bilateral encounters.
Which is where Nick Clegg and his party come in. Remember 2002-3 and the political impotence – in terms of actual policy decisions – of the Liberal Democrats then. They actually had more MPs than they do now. They campaigned as effectively as a third party can; they had swathes of public opinion on their side. But their opposition to the Iraq war was in vain. Without a representative at the top table, the opponents of the war could be brushed aside. Given that the Tories generally favoured intervention, the Liberal Democrats were no more than an irritant.
As Deputy Prime Minister, with other party members in the Cabinet, Nick Clegg is in quite a different position to Charles Kennedy then. He can make representations as an equal at the top table and be guaranteed a hearing. If it is “sofa government”, he has a place there, too. He can be a rallying point for other reluctant interventionists. Best of all, though, he has a real weapon at his disposal: ultimately, he could take his party out of the Coalition.
Opposing armed intervention in Syria is a cause for which the Liberal Democrats should be prepared to break the Coalition. And the benefit could be twofold. Not only would they do the country a service, by pre-empting another costly act of national folly, but in so doing they would also win a chance to escape the fate of most junior coalition partners and increase the party’s vote next time around.