Andrew Grice: Why one side of the coalition benefits more than the other

Inside Politics

Share
Related Topics

David Laws is one of us," one senior Conservative MP boomed. "He's got balls of steel," beamed another. They were talking about a remarkable performance in the Commons on Wednesday, when the Liberal Democrat Chief Treasury Secretary swatted away Labour's protests about the coalition Government's £6.2bn spending cuts.

Mr Laws was sent naked into the chamber without the protection of his boss, the Chancellor George Osborne, or other Cabinet figures, perhaps symbolising his role in providing useful cover for the unpalatable cuts that will follow this week's easy meat. He didn't seem to mind as he defended the cuts. "He was brilliant," a Labour frontbencher admitted.

Tory MPs joked about the return to the Treasury of "stern, unbending Gladstonian Liberalism". Mr Laws, never tempted by previous Tory attempts to persuade him to defect, reminded his new friends that he also hoped to deliver "the social liberalism about which my party is so passionate".

Indeed it is. While Liberal Democrat ministers get stuck into their new Government jobs, some party figures are starting to wonder about the downside of power. "Are we just a convenient shield for the Tories?" they ask. Not only on the cuts. There is also the self-interested Conservative plan to equalise the number of people in each parliamentary constituency, which Labour reckons will cost it 30 seats. This will get little attention because it has beencoupled with the Liberal Democrats' key demand for a referendum on the voting system. Nick Clegg wants that to take place within 18 months but Mr Cameron has not yet agreed a timetable, perhaps because he wants the boundary review to be sneaked through under the cover of the referendum.

Although the coalition is still in its honeymoon phase, Liberal Democrats also wonder about how this marriage of convenience will end. They can see a clear exit strategy for Mr Cameron at the next election: "We have shown we can govern responsibly, we are no longer the nasty party, we want a new mandate." But they can't see a smooth way out for Mr Clegg.

The gloomsters are a bit premature: "We're still working out the entry strategy," quipped one Cameron aide – but they have a point. Jitters about the coalition among Tories have been more public but they exist in the Liberal Democrats too.

The special conference of party members two weeks ago in Birmingham produced headlines about the Liberal Democrats endorsing the coalition deal with the Tories. But it also passed a long, unpublicised motion declaring that the Liberal Democrats "remain an independent party and that nothing in this [coalition] agreement prevents the party from developing a new policy through its democratic processes".

In a warning shot across Mr Clegg's bows, the conference urged Liberal Democrat ministers to work to ensure the income and wealth inequality gap was reduced significantly; reaffirmed the party's policy to scrap university tuition fees (which the Tories are expected to raise); opposed any moves to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act (a Tory manifesto pledge), demanded proportional representation for local authority elections in England and Wales and reaffirmed its support for PR in general elections (it won't get that because the Tories have agreed only a referendum on the alternative vote, which is not proportional).

Clearly, Mr Clegg needs to administer a dose of TLC to his party grass roots, to reassure them that he will keep the flame of liberalism burning – social as well as economic. Vince Cable's decision to stand down as deputy party leader is partly aimed at keeping the activists onside. As a Cabinet minister, he couldn't criticise his own Government. But a deputy leader like Simon Hughes or Tim Farron who is not a minister can – and will. The Liberal Democrats also need spokesmen for the departments where they do not have ministers (environment, international development, culture) and to make new policy on all issues so that they have something to say at the next election other than "we defend the last government".

Some Tory right-wing diehards, who feel Mr Cameron is using Mr Clegg to marginalise them, suspect the two parties will fight the next election as one – either after a merger or in some form of electoral pact. That seems highly unlikely. The Tories will surely want to win power in their own right and there are long memories in the third party of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which had two leaders – and ended up with David Steel in David Owen's breast pocket on Spitting Image.

We are all still getting used to coalition politics. The impact at the next election may be less dramatic than many politicians and commentators expect. Thursday's delayed election in Thirsk and Malton showed that the Liberal Democrats can still win votes in Tory territory. Their share of the vote was up 4.5 points on 2005, the Conservatives' up one point and Labour's down 10 points. The result was similar to others in North Yorkshire on 6 May. In the Scottish Parliament, the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with Labour for eight years and still fought it hard at elections.

The big challenge for Mr Clegg will be to show the doubters in his party, and then among the voters, that the Liberal Democrats have made a real difference to this Government – and delivered gains as well as the pain of the cuts.

React Now

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

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Teaching Assistant to work with Autistic students

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: KS2 Teacher needed in Peterborough a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The appearance of Miguel Arias Canete at a Brussels hearing last Wednesday caused 100,000 people to sign a petition to prevent his appointment  

TTIP is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the EU's suspect relationships with corporations

Lee Williams
 

Being catcalled, groped and masturbated at is a common part of the female experience

Bryony Beynon
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain