The joy of politics is its unpredictability, so when we look ahead to 2014 we risk doing so pointlessly. Nonetheless I make two predictions that I am confident will prove to be correct.
The first is a widely held view. The second is not. But I am as certain about the second as I am about the first. Here is the easy one: the Con/Lib coalition will last the course until close to the 2015 election. Here is the more contentious forecast: there will be no Con/Lib coalition after the next election even if there is another hung parliament in which the Conservatives hold the largest number of seats.
Before I explain why there will be no continuation of this particular coalition I must acknowledge that this is not a view currently held by Nick Clegg, a leader who is genuinely equidistant between the other parties and willing to work with either depending on the outcome of the election. Clegg’s approach to pluralist politics reminds me of Tony Blair’s attitude towards working with presidents of the US. He did so whatever their political affiliations. I recall taking part in a discussion on Newsnight during the 2004 presidential election campaign in which I debated with another columnist which candidate Blair privately wanted to win. A few days later I bumped into Alastair Campbell who told me that in a competitive field it was one of the most preposterous political discussions he had seen. Rightly Campbell pointed out that Blair had no personal inclination either way. He was determined to work closely with whoever was President of the US and that was the end of it.
The same applies to Clegg in terms of his attitude to the other parties. There is no point speculating which party Clegg would prefer to work with if there is another hung parliament. He will seek to do a deal with the party that has the largest number of seats. No doubt he clings to this approach with a sincere sense of duty, although as Andrew Adonis pointed out in his excellent book on the immediate aftermath of the last election, the obligation to form a partnership with the largest party is not shared in other countries where coalitions are more common.
If David Cameron leads the largest party after the election and Clegg turns to him in expectation of a deal he will find that none is possible. For a start, Cameron would be in an extremely precarious position. All the leadership speculation in relation to Cameron this year has been froth. He will lead his party into the election and is by far the best candidate to do so. But if he fails to secure an overall majority at his second attempt I know of Conservative MPs who plan to strike soon after. In an act close to political genius, Cameron managed to turn his failure to win the 2010 election into an opportunity for the Conservatives by forming the Coalition. His party will not give him the space to move so decisively next time.
Nor has Cameron got as much to offer Clegg in such circumstances. Indeed, here is a game for political addicts to play over the New Year. What can Cameron offer Clegg in 2015 compared with the box of gifts handed over to the Lib Dems’ leader in 2010? I can think of no equivalents to the offer of a referendum on electoral reform, Lords reform and the rest. Clegg failed to make the most of the gifts, but at the time they were very big reasons for Clegg to say yes and to convince his party to sign up.
The fundamental factor in the deal then was a remarkable unity in relation to economic policy – remarkable in the sense that the Lib Dems’ approach before the election was closer to Labour’s and because of the discipline that both parties have shown since. That pivotal unity is breaking down. Vince Cable’s pre-Christmas interview with Andrew Marr made waves because of what he said about the differences between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over immigration. There was nothing new in this. What was much more striking was Cable’s new emphasis on the dangers of more sweeping public spending cuts.
Cable’s support for George Osborne’s austerity package since 2010 has been constant. But as the Chancellor seeks further deep cuts in a second term, Cable has indicated opposition. “We’ve got to have a sensible balance between pressure on public spending, which is getting very severe – actually, some very good services are now being seriously affected – and tax.”
There is no longer ideological unity on the Coalition’s central project. Osborne states regularly he does not believe the spending cuts have had a negative impact on public services. Cable knows that some of them have. There is no chance of another agreement in which both parties sign up to further deep spending cuts.
As both sides realise there will be no sequel, tensions will grow. But they’ll dance awkwardly until 2015.
Skeleton public transport is not enough in the festive period
As usual at this time of year the train services have been hopeless. Most of the disruption arises from a reluctance to invest enough in infrastructure and staff. Presumably it is cheaper for the various companies and Network Rail to deliver chaos than to avoid it.
On Christmas Eve, friends came to visit us in London from Brighton. Their journey took five hours and involved so many old buses and creaking trains that they felt they had been in a very slow version of the Antiques Roadshow. As I write, most of the trains back to Brighton are cancelled. The weather is stormy, but I look out and see people on bikes. If cyclists can keep going, vehicles with powerful engines should not find it wholly impossible.
I am not romanticising the era of nationalised railways, but at least they ran regular services on Boxing Day when there is considerable demand. Now there is no more than a skeleton service if you are lucky. Public transport is as important a service as any in civilised countries. If it is viewed first and foremost as a vehicle for making money and there is no proper competition, then who can blame the companies for keeping costs to a minimum?
Decent provision of services over Christmas and New Year should be part of the deal when train companies sign their generous contracts.