This week has not been – as the Lib Dem Press Office cringingly likes to put it – Coalicious. The Tories got what they deserved for lacking the discipline to pass promised Lords Reform. But from the way they were speaking of their coalition partners it is clear that a line has not been – and will not quickly be – drawn under this one. Indeed it’s going to run and run. And already we can see the flash points gathering on the horizon.
Firstly, let’s be clear that it’s not just the Lib Dems the Tories are angry with. Despite the convulsions of joy he gave them last week with his in/out/in-a-little-while pledge on Europe, there is a large proportion of the Tory backbench who loathe Cameron. They blame him for failing to win an election while conversely blaming him for not being right wing enough. He is also arrogant and has neglected to build the alliance he needs outside of his own very tight, very privileged circle.
Despite positive feelings around Cameron coming off the Eurofence (or at least promising to probably do so in 5 years time), there is still plenty that Tory MPs are unhappy about and some of the issues put them in direct opposition to the Lib Dems.
Today’s issue is mooted defence cuts. Yesterday morning the FT ran a piece containing very strong language from some Tory MPs against further cuts, but by yesterday lunchtime the Government were indicating they were considering precisely that, despite general levels of uncertainty around the development of our role in Mali. Today confusion reigns – which is hardly the way to calm a crisis. Cameron either needs to get tough with his backbenchers or give in to them – but neither course will now quiet them.
The Tory backbenches think more can be squeezed from the welfare budget to protect defence spending. Nick Clegg believes that he has a promise from Osborne that this will now be protected until 2015. The Tories didn’t get the response they were hoping for from the public after their last attack on welfare and there are signs that even they are beginning to understand how their rhetoric is re-toxifying their Party. Those backbenchers seeking this are unlikely to get their way – something Tory backbenchers have shown little ability to swallow with dignity.
Next week will be the next really big fight. Not just between coalition Parties, but between wings of the Tory Party. While – extremely regrettably – some members of Labour and the Lib Dems will be voting against equal marriage, it won’t be in anything like the numbers of expected Tory rebels. If Nick Herbert MP is right around 150 Tory MPs (half their Parliamentary Party) will rebel. When Labour had a rebellion approaching that size, it was on the issue of sending troops to the massively misguided misadventure in Iraq, for the Tory backbenchers it’s about whether two people who love each other and happen to be of the same sex should have the same rights as straight couples have enjoyed for millennia.
Somehow I don’t think the Tory united front is going to last very long.
What about the Coalition? Will they lick their wounds and come back united? Several issues on the horizon say that they won’t. Tax breaks for married couples are back on the agenda and may well appear in the Spring Budget. The Coalition agreement allows Lib Dems to abstain on this issue. Will they? Although allowed to by the agreement, they didn’t abstain over Tuition Fees, but that has cost them dearly. Unless Nick Clegg can wring something pretty dramatic out of Osborne for this year’s budget (and so far Osborne has been pretty adept at fending off the Lib Dem demands) then this may well see a mass hand-sitting from the Lib Dems – accompanied by further vitriol from their Partners in Coalition.
We’re a long way from the Rose Garden. The Government is faced inwards and fighting itself in numerous directions. This is an opportunity for Labour and we mustn’t squander it. A divided Government does not mean an automatic loss. But it does mean that the Government’s focus on the issues that matter – the economy, life chances and the cost of living to name but three – is anything but laser-like. Now is the time that ours must be. We can’t rely on the unattractiveness of this shower alone, but we can exploit the opportunity it presents us. That must be Labour’s key task in 2013.