Of the three main UK parties it is the Liberal Democrats who display the greatest sense of unity and discipline. They have done so since the formation of the Coalition and will continue in the same spirit until the election. If they have travelled this far they will reach the destination of 2015 in a mood of reasonable calm.
The discipline is more remarkable because the Liberal Democrats are the most divided of the three parties. It is a testament to Nick Clegg’s astute party management that they appear to be the most united. In a league table of fundamental internal divisions the Liberal Democrats are top, Labour is second and the Conservatives are third – the precise opposite of the public perception where it is David Cameron’s party that tops the poll for noisy bickering. The Tories appear divided because they are less disciplined and feel no great sense of loyalty to their leadership, but they are ideologically more united than the Lib Dems or Labour. From top to bottom they are a small state, Euro-sceptic party, supportive of the revolutions taking place in health, education and welfare. They agree on the scale of the spending cuts and are excited by the prospect of a referendum on Europe.
In contrast the Liberal Democrats are more divided than they seem. The impressively masked divisions are more visible in the Lords than they are in the Commons. During Radio 4’s Week in Westminster on Saturday, the Labour peer Patricia Hollis told me that when she was a welfare minister the Liberal Democrats in the Lords urged her to be far more generous. Now she sees them voting for the cuts, but doing so in a state of anguish, insisting privately that they are uneasy but they must limit the number of times they revolt.
On several key issues the social democratic wing of Clegg’s party has expressed more vocal criticism in the Lords. It is a wing that extends way beyond former members of the SDP. Prominent Liberals such as David Steel and Archie Kirkwood and, in the Commons, Sir Ming Campbell, are as uneasy as those who originated in the SDP. By contrast, Clegg, David Laws and Danny Alexander are much less troubled by the partnership with the Conservatives.
The façade of unity will not be tested before the election. But if there is another hung parliament after that election the mask will slip. Although some senior Conservatives dare to hope for an overall majority, quite a lot accept that their best chance of serving a second term is in coalition once more with the Liberal Democrats. I can see why in some limited ways Cameron might prefer this arrangement compared with winning a small overall majority, an outcome that would empower his backbenchers to give him hell over Europe
I do not believe Cameron will get a chance to renew the Coalition, even if the Conservatives are the largest party in a hung parliament. This is less to do with the mood of unruly Tory MPs, although it is possible that some of them will announce on the all-night BBC election show their intention to remove Cameron on the grounds that he had twice failed to secure a majority. The bigger obstacle is the Liberal Democrats. Clegg will struggle to get agreement from his party for a renewal of this partnership.
Admittedly, it is possible that quite a lot of the Social Democrats have left the Lib Dems since the election, and those who remain are closer to Clegg’s politics. But the views of those who have attended recent party conferences suggest this is not the case. Although there is always the familiarly impressive discipline, and no appetite for insurrection, I have heard relentless concerns about the NHS reforms, economic policies and the rest from activists. A party conference that was to the left of new Labour has not entirely changed.
Even if the membership has moved rightwards, it is hard to see Clegg forging a new coalition agreement with the Conservatives as he did fairly easily in 2010, partly because of the policy areas where the Lib Dems are ideologically united. They include Europe, immigration and civil liberties. These are precisely the areas where some Conservatives ache to do more, especially Europe. In the policy areas where the Lib Dems are less united – public-service reform and the economy – it will be much more difficult for Clegg to secure internal agreement for another five years of revolutionary upheaval. Equally importantly, it is not easy to envisage what the Lib Dem objectives would be if they shared power with the Conservatives until 2020. They have had a referendum on electoral reform and an attempt to make the House of Lords democratic during this parliament. Neither has happened. Such measures cannot credibly be part of a new agreement with Cameron: “ I have agreed with Nick to hold another referendum on electoral reform in which I shall shaft him again”.
It will not be remotely straightforward for the Lib Dems to switch to Labour either, and impossible if the Conservatives are returned as the bigger party. But there are at least circumstances where this arrangement could be made to work. Vince Cable has told colleagues that the most effective way for Liberal Democrats to retain seats is to recreate the dynamic of the 1997 election where they joined Labour in an informal onslaught against the Conservatives.
Those close to Cable say he envisages no difficulty if the Lib Dems were in partnership with a party determined to reverse, say, the NHS reforms. He has been known to point out that activists would welcome such a reversal even if the party’s MPs had voted for the original proposals. On a range of issues – from electoral reform to Europe – there is scope for a partnership with Labour. I am not suggesting that such an arrangement is probable. I am suggesting it is more likely than a renewal of the current coalition, that I predict will not take place.
A sense of what will happen in the future impacts on the present. If key figures in the Coalition reach the same conclusion as me, a separation becomes a little more likely a few months before the election is called.
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