Michael Brown: Integration a cause for celebration

Party politics may be the loser as a result of having a coalition, but the chance of better governance may be the winner
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The Independent Online

Since her accession to the throne in 1952, the Queen has read out every speech to open Parliament in every year except for 1959 and 1963 – when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. But none will be quite like the one she will deliver later this morning. While many will argue that, since most of the contents have already appeared in the press, she could be saved the trouble of braving the heat in her evening dress, I suspect she would not want to miss out on this historic occasion.

Although, as sovereign, she has seen pretty much everything in politics, her new coalition government is still a first – even for her. And for the rest of us, trying to play catch-up with the tumultuous events of the past fortnight, the game of which party in the coalition has "won" more at the expense of the other – in legislative terms – is utterly futile.

For the record, if anyone wants to play that pointless game, newspaper reports suggest that of the 21 bills fore-shadowed, nine are pure Tory, five are pure Lib Dem and seven are Lib Dem/Tory overlaps – common to both manifestos. Not an unfair distillation if one wants to look at the speech through such an irrelevant prism. Some other bills from both parties will never see the light of day. But to view this speech in a "winners and losers" mentality is to miss the entire point of what it means, in the words of Nick Clegg, to provide a "different kind of government".

Political observers, myself included, still have to understand that this is more than just a fusion of two parties' shopping lists of new laws. The way the dual leadership of the coalition envisages governing over the next five years is regarded as bigger than the sum of the constituent parts. Of course, if the Tories had achieved an outright majority the speech today would have been very different. But from the moment the electorate delivered its verdict, David Cameron has, rightly, totally changed his mindset. This is an integrated programme for a full parliamentary term that does much more than merely take bits from each of the Liberal Democrats' and Tory manifestos.

Party politics may be the loser but the chance of better governance may be the winner. The slowest to understand the speed with which events have moved are the respective backbencher "supporters" – especially Tories – of the coalition. Their immediate fear of "let-down" is, however, understandable – if misplaced. Whereas the leaderships have been working round the clock to establish the new programme for government, backbenchers are still trapped by their own partisan promises, during the election, to their local voters. Nobody, they will argue, actually voted – by a single cross – for what they regard as the inclusion of mutually contradictory policies in a combined programme.

The new Tory MP for Cleethorpes, who regained my old seat, arrives in Westminster with a pledge to reverse the totality of the Labour increase in National Insurance contributions yet finds himself likely to endorse the employee increase. He will now be voting in the division lobbies to reverse only the employer contribution. On a whole range of other policy issues, set out in his election address, he runs the risk of being accused of breaking his promises.

But voters are far more likely to understand the political realities of recent events than those of us trapped in the mindset of the Westminster village. Which is why the collective leadership of the coalition may find less trouble in pressing ahead with the measures in today's speech than the reports of backbench dissent suggest. Already the senior participants in the Government refer, without embarrassment or missing a beat, to "the coalition". The media is only now beginning to catch up but the new political vocabulary will soon enter common parlance.

The truth is that most electors do not actually pore over every line, dot or comma either of an election address or a party manifesto. And in the end Mr Cameron may well have done the new Cleethorpes MP and his colleagues a favour, at the time they seek re-election, by using the opportunity, provided out of necessity, to dump some of the more outlandish and potentially unworkable parts of his party's manifesto.

The nightmare task of repatriating powers from Europe would have caused mayhem with the Prime Minister's European partners and would have made his initial meetings with President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel far less convivial. By comparison, Eurosceptic discontent, led by the likes of Bill Cash, is a (relatively) small price to pay compared to war with Brussels. Even if Mr Cameron had maintained such a commitment he would have poisoned the relationship with the Lib Dem section of the coalition.





In the end, however, few Queen's Speeches are remembered by voters. Their final judgement on polling day – 7 May 2015 – will be conditioned, ultimately, by the extent to which the tackling of the deficit impacts adversely on employment and living standards. And – as usual – events as yet unknown will duly play their part. The fate of this coalition's success is as much in the hands of George Osborne and David Laws as anything Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg may say in the forthcoming debate on the address. Yesterday's announcement of £6.2bn of cuts will not yet impinge directly on voters. The real pain will begin in four weeks' time, when Mr Osborne unveils his Budget. But even that will be as nothing compared to the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn.

Of course, the coalition also relies on its constituent backbenchers to sustain it in the voting lobbies. The first test will come quickly with the plan to fix the date of the next election. Although the coalition is surrendering the Prime Minister's power to call an early election, many Tory backbenchers see the threshold requirement, of 55 per cent of the Commons to secure a dissolution, as a threat to MPs' historic rights to fire governments. Thank goodness Mr Cameron had the wit to reappoint the experienced Patrick McLoughlin as his chief whip in order to massage bruised egos.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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