The received wisdom is that it is the junior member of a coalition – and, in particular, its leader – who pays the heaviest price for collaboration with the political enemy. But shared government is far from easy for the senior partner either, as David Cameron is finding out.
From the 100-plus Eurosceptics voting their “regret” at the Queen’s Speech, to the “swivel-eyed loons” gibe at Tory activists from a senior member of the Cameron top team, to the parliamentary rebellion over gay marriage, the serial commotions of recent weeks have left the Prime Minister looking weak, “out of control” (as one former Tory cabinet minister helpfully put it), and – fatally – detached from his party’s core concerns.
Hence, Mr Cameron took to the airwaves yesterday morning to try to draw a line under the debacle and focus minds on the “massive programme of work” still to come. Even with the controversial Marriage Bill behind him, however, the contretemps will continue.
The Prime Minister’s problem is that his quarrelsome MPs and disaffected activists are not only unconvinced about certain of his policies – they are unconvinced about him. Had the Tories won a majority in 2015, neither Mr Cameron’s policy on the EU, nor even his support for same-sex marriage, would have been beyond his powers of persuasion. As it is, though, he simply does not have the electoral authority to take his party with him.
It is no surprise, then, that the whispers about breaking up the Coalition are growing louder. Senior Tories are reportedly modelling scenarios for exit, and the more febrile commentators have over-interpreted some rather anodyne remarks of Mr Cameron’s to draw similarly cataclysmic conclusions.
The logic may be flawed, but it is easy enough to understand. The fractious and frustrated, in parliament and the shires both, have convinced themselves that it is Mr Cameron’s attempts at modernisation that are to blame for his failure in 2010. And with Ukip peeling off support from the right, the argument is, supposedly, clinched. Jettison the Liberal Democrats, therefore, and all will be well – for country and party alike.
Except that precisely the reverse is true. Not only would such a move confirm voters’ suspicions that politicians are wholly divorced from the country’s real concerns, thus guaranteeing a drubbing at the ballot box. The collapse of the Coalition, and the chaos that would ensue, would also be a disaster for Britain.
That Nick Clegg, of all people, has now waded into the debate will no doubt rankle with trouble-making Tories. But they would do well to listen, nonetheless. Having graciously avoided capitalising on the Conservatives’ recent ructions, the Deputy Prime Minister did point out yesterday that those outside the Westminster bubble look askance at the game-playing that is consuming so much time and thought.
He is right. Now is no time for political petulance. With the economy in the doldrums, and the global climate far from clement, Britain needs stable government more than ever. True, there have been tentative signs of economic life in recent weeks. But, as yesterday’s downbeat assessment from the International Monetary Fund made clear, we are still a long way from a sustainable recovery. Political uncertainty would be calamitous.
The irony, of course, is that the Coalition has been anything but a failure. Indeed, it is the two parties’ agreement on the fundamentals of their economic strategy that is the mark of its surprising success. Whatever Mr Cameron’s clamorous MPs might say, a break-up of the Coalition is in no one’s interests – least of all Britain’s.Reuse content