Editorial: The big breakthrough is the Coalition's survival

Monday 07 January 2013 21:13

For all the interpretation and re-interpretation swirling around the Coalition's much-anticipated mid-term review, its greatest significance lies in the fact that it happened at all. In the aftermath of the much-lampooned Rose Garden love-in of May 2010, the air was thick with predictions that the shotgun union of Tories and Liberal Democrats would be over by Christmas, if not before. And as the partnership continued, so did the prophesies of acrimonious collapse. Two-and-a-half years later, however, the Government is not only still standing, it is still functional – which is more than might be said for periods of the Blair/Brown soap opera.

For a country which, as Disraeli famously observed, "does not love coalitions", the past 31 months have been telling indeed. True, the ride has not been altogether smooth. On constitutional reform, in particular, the grown-up approach trumpeted by both Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister yesterday wore perilously thin. David Cameron's decision to allow his party to launch highly personal attacks on Nick Clegg, when faced with the chance of losing the vote on electoral reform, is especially difficult to square with the highfalutin rhetoric. So, too, is his swift retreat on Lords reform.

For all that, the accord at the top of the Coalition is striking. For both party leaders, finding a mutually acceptable position within the Government is not the biggest challenge. At least as difficult is maintaining the support of increasingly vitriolic backbenchers and party activists who see swindle and weakness in every bargain struck. Yet tiffs at the top and barbed indignation from the party machinery are part and parcel of coalition, as more sanguine voters in any number of European countries can attest.

Even the surprise departure of the leader of the House of Lords barely dampened the mood yesterday. The news of Lord Strathclyde's decision to pursue a second career in business was certainly strangely timed, preceding the all-star launch of the mid-term review by just a few hours. But attempts to suggest that the real motivation was either contempt for the Coalition or frustration at the obstructiveness of Liberal Democrat peers gained little traction.

Nor has coalition put a crimp on reform efforts. Naysayers warned darkly of an internecine stand-off, of fundamental disagreements that would stymie all progress and leave a policy agenda so hedged about with compromises as to render it worthless. Far from it.

The deficit-reduction programme remains the central tenet of the Coalition's shared identity. It also, by its nature, delimits all other choices. But it has been accompanied by a radical shake-up of the education sector, the welfare system, and also the NHS. Love such plans or loathe them, there is no denying their ambition; and their existence puts paid to suggestions that coalition is synonymous with political gridlock. The suite of new priorities outlined yesterday – from tackling childcare costs to capping social care bills to finding private money to invest in Britain's ageing roads – contained too few details to be much more than a wish list. But it hardly speaks of a Government locked in self-inflicted torpor.

If there were any doubt about the extent to which Britain has changed, it was Nigel Farage who yesterday provided it. At first glance, the Ukip leader's remark that, in 2015, his MPs could help form a coalition might be dismissed as merely the usual bumptious over-reach. Five years ago, however, the point would never have arisen. There will be more rows, of course. But Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg et al are to be congratulated on this at least: Britain might not love coalition, but we are getting used to it.

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