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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The Governing Compact Is Itself the Danger for UK Coalition

The Governing Compact Is Itself the Danger for UK Coalition

Published on Suite 101 a year ago on 8 March 2012, it is even more pertinent now as the Coalition faces some strains, any one of which could prove fatal. The recent Eastleigh byelection has upturned the normal views about the Liberal-Democrats being the impotent minor partners.

Received wisdom says in coalitions, junior parties get swallowed up, are blamed and rarely praised. Is the UK ruling coalition about to fall apart?

In politics it’s often enough to merely talk something up for it to become fact. It’s variously known as political wishful thinking or ‘flying a flag up the pole to see if anyone salutes it’.

It appears to be so with the future of the governing Coalition. Some are muttering (with just a few actually speaking aloud) the thought that its days are numbered. Of course, many would like to see it end rapidly and a general election held, but many more feel 2012 too soon to hold a plebiscite of public opinion.

As things stand, the next election has to be in 2015 at the latest, but in the British system it can be whenever the Queen grants the Prime Minister’s request to dissolve Parliament. The Coalition has given stability following a situation at the 2010 election wherein no party had an overall majority. Is that enough to ensure survival?

State of the Coalition

It has been for many a ‘camel’ (a horse designed by a committee). But most commentators feel that there has been a beneficial unity of purpose about deficit reduction and public spending, even if details are not always shared across the parties. In an alliance of separate entities, compromises have to be made and constant adjustments/allowances made, and both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have proved adept at that, while still maneuvering to show they are leaders of distinct parties.

However, Peter Oborne writing in The Daily Telegraph (8 March 2012) felt that ‘the original dynamism and sense of purpose has gone’. He listed issues like Europe, tax, health, trade and family policies and constitutional reform which divide the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.

He could have added energy policy, the planning regime, the plan to change the definition of marriage, the PM’s judgments on his advisors and friends and, if he’d looked hard enough and in local communities, far more issues putting the national Coalition under strain.

In fact, while it is impossible to say which policy is set to be the final straw for the pact, in politics, the unexpected should always be expected. However, the future of Britain’s membership of the European Union, and David Cameron’s refusal to hold a referendum that most people say they want in opinion polls and epetitions, remains high on the list of danger zones for the Coalition.

Fate of Junior Partners

Oborne quoted a book written by former Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten, Coalition: The Politics and Personalities of Coalition Government from 1850 (2007) in which he analysed past British coalition experience and that of Europe and Ireland, areas which have been governed by many and varied coalitions over the years. Oaten said that historical evidence proved that coalitions were always disastrous for the smaller partner; they lost identity and votes.

Difficulties often begin about two years in (the Labour-Liberal Pact of March 1977 lasted till only September 1978, just eighteen months). Agreements run out and some try to relaunch the deal with a new one, as a few have suggested in Britain in 2012.

In a government of one party with a reasonable majority, after two years personal and policy cracks start appearing and there is frequently a sense of lack of direction and running into sand. Backbenchers get restless, easy policies give way to less palatable and more difficult ones to implement. Unpopularity breeds electoral fear in MPs with small majorities.

As Oborne pointed out, that the Business Secretary Vince Cable openly criticised the Government for having ‘no compelling vision for Britain’ is itself a sign of tensions beginning to bubble to the surface. How long the line can be held on the 50p tax band, child benefit changes, NHS reforms and the near-certain collapse of the Eurozone adding to the economic problems of Britain and elsewhere, remains to be seen.

How Will History Judge the Coalition?

Oborne said, “I write this with sadness’, mistakes have been made but it has ‘been the best government for a generation’ led by men and women of ‘decency and goodwill’. He expected the Coalition to break apart by 2013 ‘at the latest’ although a minority Conservative government could survive for a time.

Whether the Labour Party is yet genuinely ready to govern again in its own right is a matter of debate. Some of their senior voices, such as former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, are suggesting they have not yet come to terms with their periods of office 1997-2010 and still, in effect, need to wear hair shirts. An actual election could change all that, of course, and they could emerge with a majority.

By next year it seems unlikely there will be resolution of the very same issues (Europe, tax, health, trade and family policies and constitutional reform, energy policy, the planning regime, the plan to change the definition of marriage) that we face today. Therefore it may be that no one party will emerge victorious, the electoral numbers being what they are.

Once again, Britain could have a hung Parliament. Another coalition, this time between Labour and Liberal Democrats could be possible. However, the issue of Scottish independence could change the political, electoral and economic landscape beyond all recognition in the next few years.


The Daily Telegraph. Peter Oborne, This fine Coalition won’t see out 2013. (8 March 2012)

Coalition: The Politics and Personalities of Coalition Government From 1850 by Mark Oaten, September 2007. ISBN: 9781905641284.

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