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

Inside Politics

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

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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'