Category Archives: Coalition

A house divided can stand

Abraham Lincoln quoted scripture when he said of the young United States, as it faced threats of seccession by southern slave-owning states, that a divided house cannot stand. He went on to defeat these threats in the bloodiest war the United States has ever endured.

The British government doesn’t face quite the same existential threat, thankfully. But the steady occurrence of divisive political issues keeps raising the spectre of the Coalition’s collapse.

Yesterday in Parliament we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, statement opposing much of the Leveson report on the press, being starkly contradicted by his Deputy, Nick Clegg, who supports it. Also in Parliament yesterday, we saw the Lib Dem energy secretary, Ed Davey, present his battle-scarred Energy Bill, with his wind-sceptic Tory junior, John Hayes, sitting behind him, glowering supportively.

We’ve also had, recently, the unceremonious ditching by the Conservatives of Lords reform advocated by the Lib Dems. As an eye for an eye, the Lib Dems have said that they will oppose the re-drawing of Parliamentary boundary changes that would have benefited their coalition partners.

Opposition MPs’ criticism that Lib Dem ministers who can’t abide by collective responsibility should resign is an obvious debating point. This ignores the fact that it is in the nature of governments to set precedents. And with the first peacetime coalition formed purely as a result of Parliament being hung, the nature of the government itself is unprecedented.

The rules of collective responsibility have been re-written. There will no doubt be more intra-Coalition spats in the months to come, but none of them will bring down the Coalition until one, or both, parties decides that it’s time to pull down the temple.

The Coalition may eventually reach the point where it falls apart, but my hunch is that this won’t happen until well into 2014 at the earliest. The reason is that both parties are wedded to austerity and need to be able to demonstrate that it has worked. The economy will need to have returned clearly to growth, or be showing credible signs that it will do so. Only then can they face the electorate and be able to tell them that the pain has been worth it.

We will then face the delicious irony that as soon as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can demonstrate that the Coalition has been successful, they might then decide to terminate it. Quite what the electorate will make of that, we will have to wait and see.

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Chancellor confirms nothing new under The Sun

On Wednesday, the Chancellor of the ExchequerGeorge Osborne, fulfilled his constitutional duty by confirming the past few weeks’ media speculation on what changes there should be to tax rates and allowances and how they would be funded. This is known as The Budget.

Each year beginning in early March, we avidly read the papers to see what lies in store for us and on Budget day, the Chancellor confirms that he has read them too.

Of course, Chancellors always mange to pull some rabbits out of the hat and catch us by surprise with a gleeful “tah-dah!” Although pensioners might be thinking that the freezing of their tax allowance looks more like a poisonous snake than a fluffy white rabbit. If this group of voters were less steadfast in their voting allegiances, it might have more of ta-ta effect. The self-same well-briefed papers seem to think so and have branded it straight away as “Granny Tax”.

Pre-briefing (or spinning, if you prefer) of the Budget is not new. We can speculate how hard Charlie WhelanEd Balls and Alastair Campbell worked in advance of Budgets to secure the headlines they wanted. And this year’s process has been amplified by the dynamics of coalition politics. The well-informed press speculation has partly been a reflection of the internal negotiation between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers on what should be in the Budget and each party’s determination to show that they managed to put their stamp on the final package.

Speculation on the content of Budgets is not new and has always been driven by a combination of journalistic competition, political gossip and in recent decades, by politicians’ determined efforts to “manage” the media’s coverage.

It doesn’t always work, of course, and according to the Chancellor, the reason he is getting such bad headlines on the “Granny Tax” is because it was “the bit of news people didn’t have”. Shadow Treasury minister, Chris Leslie has said that the leaks were a “serious breach” and an “insult” to Parliament.

Chris Leslie’s criticism won’t hurt George Osborne, but as a mark of how far the conduct of politics has changed, just look at what happened to Labour’s first post-war Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, as described in meticulous detail in the late Ben Pimlott’s masterful biography of him.

As Dalton passed through central lobby on his way to deliver his 1947 Budget, he whispered a few of the budget details to a journalist on the Star, a London evening paper. The grateful recipient was able to phone through to his news desk just in time to catch the old Stop Press or “fudge” section of the paper before the presses started rolling. A few thousand copies ran with the line on gambling: “There will also be a tax on dogs and football pools, but not on horse racing.” Minutes later, the sub-editors removed the “will” and toned it down to “Also likely to be…”

The offending tip off appeared on the streets just 20 minutes before Dalton actually spoke in no more than 260 copies that were sold on Fleet Street, Middle Temple Lane and at a bus stop near Aldwych. Competing newspapers noticed it, brought it to the attention of suitably outraged opposition MPs, and an urgent Commons question was tabled the next day. Dalton defended himself as best he could but tendered his resignation that evening, as he believed that “one must always own up”.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee, possibly for a variety of reasons, accepted Dalton’s resignation, but stressed that “the principle of the inviolability of the Budget is of the highest importance and the discretion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer […] must be beyond question”.

The days of the inviolability of the Budget are long gone, but that can also mean that Chancellors’ “tah-dah!” moments are not always of their own planning.

Autumn statement gives Lib Dems seven-year itch

George Osborne’s autumn statement generated a lot of discussion about its economic implications, with much gloom and foreboding. But it will also have significant implications for the politics of the coalition, particularly for the Liberal Democrats.

The coalition was founded on the basis of a fixed five-year term. It was coupled with a five-year economic strategy that would see the elimination of the UK’s structural deficit in time for an election in 2015. This all seemed like neat political and economic symmetry.

The Conservative Party took a deep breath and gave up the notion of governing on its own. The Liberal Democrats, grateful for their first experience of power in 90 years, clutched their garlic and joined forces with a political party whom many regarded as bitter enemies.

It would be a rough ride at times, as the Liberal Democrats found out over tuition fees, but it would be a five-year project at the end of which the two parties would go their separate ways and face the electorate.

But now the structural deficit will be with us until 2017. Thus, we now have a five-year coalition pursuing a seven-year economic strategy. The coalition parties cannot now plan to go to the country separately in 2015 claiming to have balanced the books. Treasury Chief Secretary and Lib Dem strategist, Danny Alexander, clearly grasps this, but his acknowledgement of the changed political dynamic is bringing out other Lib Dems in a rash.

Alexander appeared on BBC 2’s Newsnight following the autumn statement and said that the Liberal Democrats would fight the next election committed to the additional £15 billion of cuts in 2016 and 2017 that they had agreed with their Conservative coalition partners.

He said: “As a government we originally set out plans that would meet our targets a year early in 2014/15. But because of the way that economic circumstances have deteriorated we need to make this commitment for future years, so yes Liberal Democrats and Conservatives will work together in government to set out plans for those following two years and, of course, we will both be committed to delivering them.”

This caused consternation among some of his Lib Dem colleagues who are wary of being too closely allied to the Conservative Party. They are anxious to preserve their party’s independence and to go into the next election on a manifesto that is distinct and separate from the Conservatives.

We are all adjusting to coalition politics. All that Danny Alexander’s comments show is that he has adjusted better than some of his Lib Dem colleagues. It will be extremely difficult, not to say, implausible, for the Lib Dems to support an economic strategy that runs into the next Parliament, but cease to support it on the day that the next election is called.

As they enter the next election, both coalition parties will have to claim that their partnership has been a success. Having trumpeted the success of the coalition and tied it to an economic policy that will still have another two years to run, it will require fairly tortuous logic to tell the electorate that it must come to an end.

I wouldn’t bet against the next election producing another hung Parliament and another coalition. So Danny Alexander may well have put down a useful hedge that he can cash when negotiations for the next coalition open.

Of course both parties will stand on separate manifestos and fight their own election campaigns. We are some way from a repeat of Lloyd George’s and Bonar Law’s “coupon” election of 1918, when candidates who had the official support of the coalition were issued with letters of endorsement. But if we have entered a period of hung parliaments and coalitions, Danny Alexander will appear more astute than some of his Lib Dem colleagues are giving him credit for. The prospect of another five years in power could provide the balm to cure their itches.