The Coalition experiment is over. Nick Clegg’s announcement today that House of Lords reform will no longer be pursued and the Liberal Democrats will not support the boundary review completion prior to the election, marks the end of a process of slow unraveling. The separation began with the conduct of the Prime Minister during the AV referendum and it’s now irreconcilable. They will stay married but live apart. The marriage is now just for appearances.
Government can’t work in this way. It’s internal warfare not coalition. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives alike will continue to argue that they have a joint economic mission. This won’t last either. In fact, that too appears to be drifting apart. Unless the economy quickly turns around, the tensions will become too great to manage. Osborne’s reckless stubbornness will have a damaging political impact as well as an economic one. The staggering thing is the immaturity of it all.
The Coalition could have pursued a unity of purpose and for a while, back in 2010, it appeared that they would. Had Tory backbenches stuck to the Coalition agreement – instead of wriggling out of their responsibilities on a fanciful reading of what particular phrases meant – and had David Cameron been able to deliver Lords reform and behaved with honour then the Coalition might have survived. Now it will collapse in recrimination. Tory backbenchers will righteously attack the Liberal Democrats to an even greater extent. Liberal Democrats may finally discover a spine and start to bite back – Nick Clegg’s tit-for-tat rejection of the boundary review is a taste of that. It won’t make for good viewing at all.
Both parties had the opportunity to keep Labour at bay for a decade or more. It they had put tactics and short-term self-interest to one side, they could have held power in a situation where it is very difficult for any party to secure a majority. It is utterly perplexing to watch the Tories and their behaviour. They have to lead Labour by 10% or so to secure a majority. A failure to compromise on anything means that a Tory majority is now less likely in 2015 and even if they can edge ahead of Labour again they will be dependent on a party that increasingly resents them. Some victory for the rebels. What on earth did they think they were playing at?
All this makes a Labour victory – maybe even an outright victory – more likely in 2015. As the Tories and the Liberal Democrats become locked in oscillating sullen bitterness and public bickering, the authority of the Prime Minister will begin to drain away. He has completely failed to lead and, in fact, has encouraged disloyalty in his manner and actions. At this stage of the Parliament, I expected to be saying many things about David Cameron. The surprise is that the word that seems to be the best fit is ‘weak’.
The calls for a General Election will start to gather force over the coming months from both Labour and even from some backbench Conservatives. The public will start to demand one also. This is not only a Government that few wanted; it is a Government that has failed. A lack of legitimacy and incompetence is a potent mix. It is certainly not a combination that a Government at war with itself can withstand easily.
When does this conclude? It is still unlikely that we will see an election before 2015. The fixed term parliament legislation seems to determine that. Assuming the Liberal Democrats do not commit seppuku then Labour and Conservatives would have to conspire to call an election. What chance is there of that realistically? At the very least Liberal Democrats are likely to offer confidence and supply. It seems likely though that they will leave the Coalition sooner rather than later. So a minority Conservative administration will limp on for a couple of years or so once the Liberal Democrats bolt.
In the space of a few short months, the notion of Prime Minister Ed Miliband has gone from wishful thinking to possibility to better than evens. Today the odds have shortened further. When the great book of political folly is written, the conduct of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats from 2011 to 2015 will cover quite a few of its pages.
Labour can’t believe its luck. The challenge now is not just to appear ready but to be ready. The Coalition experiment is done. A loveless marriage is all that remains. And it’s going to get worse. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have blown it. They are young men and will have many years to look back with regret. For the country, it has to endure three more years of this. A novel political experiment has turned into a nightmare. Astonishing.