Steve Richards: Power alone is enough to keep them united

The coalition

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A month on from the formation of the Con/Lib coalition and still the new political landscape feels closer to a dream. No one has quite adapted to the changed circumstances and perhaps no one will after 50 or 60 months, the full term that the Government plans to rule before calling an election.

Those still adapting include some of the participants – MPs from all parties, and a media so used to the pretence of total unity in government they they are not entirely sure how to play this one.

On a political level the coalition has so far been an unqualified success. It has been like watching a piece of art emerge unexpectedly from several hands. David Cameron saw an opportunity on the Friday after the election and he seized it. Nick Clegg, too, has made the most of limited space, going through the most astonishing sequence of any politician in living memory. He suffered from anonymity at the start of the election, hysterical approbation as Cleggmania erupted during the campaign, the intense disappointment of performing less well in the election than anticipated and then ending up as Deputy Prime Minister. I have witnessed some oscillating political careers but nothing quite like this.

Inevitably from day one there was speculation about how long the coalition would last. At first I was sceptical. Parties are formed for a reason. If most Lib Dems were Tories, they would have joined the Conservative party and vice versa. But having witnessed the coalition dance for the past month, I have changed my mind. It will endure. This is partly because power is addictive, and those exercising it, in spite of winning no overall majority, will not want to give it up. In the 13 years of Labour rule, only Robin Cook resigned from the Cabinet on a matter of principle, followed – too late – by Clare Short, both in relation to Iraq.

Those who have not been beneficiaries in terms of appointments have less cause to behave themselves. Sometimes they will stir and there will be moments of high tension. But this is nothing new under a single governing party. Remember the knife-edge vote on top-up fees under Tony Blair. There was much talk at the time that he would resign if he lost. I doubt if he would have done, but he won by only a handful of votes. Blair had a landslide majority at the time. New Labour was a coalition too, one that spanned the left and the right, much wider than the current one.

I can see exactly how the dynamic of the new Parliament will work. On the eve of each Liberal Democrat conference, we journalists will report with some excitement that Clegg faces the "fight of his life" to keep his party on board. Clegg will make his leader's speech, get a rapturous ovation and return to his office in Whitehall. This is what tends to happen when a leader fights for his life. He wins.

In this case Clegg has one irrefutable argument. If Liberal Democrats believe in electoral reform, there will be coalitions and not always with the same party. Are they going to show they are up for this form of politics, or walk away? The argument dwarfs all the intense and justified concerns in the Liberal Democrats that their leader has found it a little too easy to work with the Conservative leadership.

There are still huge dangers for the Liberal Democrats, but that is a separate issue from the question of whether the coalition will last. In the short to medium term there are bigger dangers for them in stepping to one side and facing the onslaught of being too immature to cope with power. I can hear David Cameron now if this were to happen: "I liked Nick and we worked really well together, but it is a shame about his party."

Cameron, too, has an irrefutable argument if his right starts to cause problems. I doubt if the right will stir very much because the coalition is on the whole pursuing policies of which it approves. There is unease over what the Government plans to do with capital gains tax in the Budget, but I suspect a compromise will be reached. Even if the right rebels occasionally, Cameron can point to the election result and argue that he had no choice but to seek a coalition. In the meantime, the debate in the Conservative Party about why Cameron failed to win outright is postponed. Only opposition parties carry out a post-mortem, which the Labour leadership candidates are doing with more candour than I had thought likely. I went to a leadership hustings on Wednesday expecting to be bored out of my mind. For all kinds of reasons it was electric theatre. I am not exaggerating.

While the coalition is secure, it will struggle to be effective. That is not because of profound internal disagreement, but because they agree too much. Both sides seem comfortable with revisiting the worst of New Labour. The focus on "spin" and tone is very familiar to those of us who followed events closely in 1997. My favourite was the last Tuesday's hype over a document, supposedly revolutionary, about how the process of spending cuts would work, including a public consultation. It reminded me of New Labour's Welfare Roadshows when Blair and Brown toured the country, but had no policies for welfare reform, an unfortunate gap. Now we await the substance of the cuts, the real story. Inexperienced ministers always look elsewhere for guidance. These ones look to Canada in the 1990s. Perhaps a closer look at Britain in 2010 would help.

Nonetheless, the coalition is built to last and, whatever else happens, is a revolution in itself, changing the culture of British politics for the better. At last we no longer have to pretend that ministers agree on everything. Indeed, the surprise is how much these ministers do agree with each other.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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