Liberal Democrat ministers are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they keep their mouths shut about the overall direction of the Coalition, they are accused of being crypto-Conservatives, actively pushing through a radical right-wing agenda. If they are caught voicing reservations about certain Coalition policies, they are branded as hapless stooges, powerless to affect the actions of a de facto Tory Government. The Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, responding to the latest revelations of indiscretions by Liberal Democrat ministers in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, described the party as being "locked in the boot" of the Coalition.
Yet Nick Clegg's party cannot surely be both driving the project and also a helpless passenger. In truth, such contradictory claims about the nature of the Coalition tell us more about those making them than they do about the Liberal Democrats or the Coalition. Britain has been steeped in intensely tribal, pendulum politics for so long that, for many, a Coalition remains a logical impossibility. To these suspicious minds, if two parties are working together it must either be because one has been ideologically assimilated by the other or because one has been marginalised to the point of irrelevance.
Paradoxically, the doubts of Liberal Democrat ministers, brought to light by some contentious journalistic methods from the Telegraph, might help educate Britain on the realities of coalition politics. It is now clear that Liberal Democrat ministers can have doubts about policies in private, but maintain enough discipline to back them in public.
Some will shout "hypocrisy" at this but that exposes their own naivety. Political parties are themselves coalitions. All politicians have to swallow decisions that they do not like, or perhaps even fought against behind the scenes. Labour supporters should consider Alan Johnson's reversal on the subject of a graduate tax earlier this month. Coalitions between parties work in a similar way. There are strong arguments but, in the end, collective discipline must trump private conscience if government is to be effective.
Of course there are limits. If the outlooks of two parties are irreconcilable on a major subject of national importance, they will be unable to work together and the coalition will (and should) break apart. But there is no evidence, seven months into this Government, that we have reached that point yet. And it might not be reached before the end of the Parliament.
The doubts and fears of some Liberal Democrat ministers are out in the open now, and what is most remarkable is how unremarkable they are. The Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, says the Chancellor's decision to eradicate child benefit "came out of nowhere". That is simply stating the reality. The Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, claims that he wrote privately to the Chancellor to complain about the same policy because "the details aren't right". Indeed they are not, as was widely accepted when they were announced. Ed Davey, the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, is concerned about the impact of housing benefit cuts, as well he might be. So are some Tory MPs.
The fact that these comments have been made public is embarrassing. But they are relatively small disagreements of the sort to be expected in a Coalition. Far more destabilising for the Liberal Democrats would have been the revelation of an intent to form a non-aggression pact with the Conservatives at the next election.
This week we have seen something of the reality of coalition politics. It is messy and awkward. But, unfortunately for the Coalition's opponents, on this evidence it is not on the verge of collapse.Reuse content