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.