Andrew Grice: Miliband is preparing for the Coalition's end. He's in for a long wait

Inside Politics

Share
Related Topics

Despite their public hostilities, Ed Miliband sent Nick Clegg a private message recently, urging him to prepare for the day when the Liberal Democrats break with the Coalition, and hinting that Labour would do business with them if they did.

The verbal message, passed through an intermediary, is fascinating at several levels. The Labour leader is implementing his advertised strategy of wooing the Lib Dems as well as hoovering up their supporters. It's a nod and wink that he might be able to work with Mr Clegg, despite suggesting during Labour's leadership election he would demand his head in any future Lib-Lab arrangement. Also interesting is the Lib Dems' reaction to Mr Miliband's tentative olive branch. If anything, Mr Clegg is getting in deeper and deeper with the Tories rather than thinking about breaking up. That doesn't mean a permanent Coalition or a merger of its two parties. Their relationship is a marriage of convenience for both. It allows David Cameron to complete the detoxification of the Tory brand. But it also allows Mr Clegg to do something very similar for his party. Its private polling shows that the main reasons people are reluctant to vote Lib Dem is that they regard a coalition and hung parliament as a bad thing; and doubt the party's economic credibility and ability to run anything. "If this works, we'll be halfway there," one Clegg ally explained. In other words, the party would be taken seriously as a contender for power under its own steam.

This explains the Clegg strategy. From the outside, it can look as though he is being steamrollered by the Tories as he swallows deep public spending cuts and makes a spectacular U-turn on university tuition fees. But even if it means taking a hit in the opinion polls there is method in the apparent madness. Mr Clegg's calculation is crude but probably correct. If the Government's deficit-reduction strategy is eventually perceived by the public to have worked, the Lib Dems may get some credit – but only if their hands are "dipped in blood" now. So next week he will stand shoulder to shoulder with Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, for the unveiling of welfare reforms, and will defend cuts in housing benefit which some Lib Dem MPs find hard to stomach. If the strategy fails, then both parties would go down with the ship anyway; the Lib Dems won't get any credit for half-heartedly supporting the cuts after keeping the Tories in power.

Instead, the Coalition partners use each other skilfully as political cover. The Tories don't look so nasty when they make cuts because those nice Lib Dems are backing them. The two parties also think hard about who announces what. If Mr Clegg had trumpeted this week's decision to allow most prisoners the vote, it would have caused Mr Cameron even more problems with Tory MPs and supporters. So the Tories took the reins, emphasising the Prime Minister's reluctance but billing the decision as a way of avoiding a big compensation bill following a ruling in the European Court of Human Rights. Similarly, the Liberal Democrats are confident of softening the Tories' stance on immigration but won't shout it from the rooftops. Mr Clegg won a highly significant victory when the Government delayed a decision on whether to renew the Trident nuclear missile system until 2015 but didn't open the champagne in public. It suits Tories and Lib Dems to be all in it together and the result is a remarkably competent and disciplined government. Both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg know there will come a time when the parties eye the next election and become more tribal. Trident is a good example of where they will diverge.

For now, though, things can only get closer. Tory and Lib Dem minds are turning to the second half of the four years of full-blown Coalition. Oliver Letwin, the Tory policy guru whose title of Cabinet Office Minister belies his huge influence, and Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury Chief Secretary, will soon start work on a "second-half" strategy.

Next week, Whitehall departments will publish their cuts – sorry, business – plans following last month's spending review. The emphasis will be on reforms rather than cuts. The Coalition's plans on welfare, education and health are more radical than they are given credit for. But its skills will be tested to the full as it tries to sell them.

The Government has won the voters' permission to tackle the deficit. But it is very hard to introduce reforms and cuts at the same time, and there have been mixed messages. Is the Coalition's core purpose to revive the economy, slim down the state or improve social mobility? It will need to offer more than deficit-reduction to avoid the mid-term blues afflicting President Obama.

Despite that, this Coalition is built to last. I would be surprised now if it doesn't survive until the advertised election date in May 2015. I doubt Mr Miliband will get the phone call he wants from Mr Clegg before then.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there