A midterm appraisal
‘We are dealing with the deficit, rebuilding the economy, reforming welfare and education and supporting hard-working families through tough times,” write David Cameron and Nick Clegg, leaders of the British Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in their midterm review document. “On all of these key aims, our parties, after 32 months of coalition, remain steadfast and united.”
Their claims are true as far as they go, but they conveniently overlook major divisions which illustrate how difficult it is to keep the government together as it comes under pressure from both party bases.
This is the first UK coalition since the second World War, a major innovation in a state distinctive for its majoritarian electoral system and political culture. That system failed to deliver an outright majority for the Conservatives and it made sense to the Liberal Democrats in May 2010 to co-operate in ousting Labour after 13 years in office. Perhaps the truest of the document’s claims is that the two parties look much more likely than not to see out a five year term to May 2015. As Mr Cameron put it, this is a political arrangement rather than a relationship, but it could well set a precedent for other partners in future.
The very success of their austerity and welfare programmes guarantees poll weakness half way through, reinforced by the failure to deliver a permanent reduction in the budget deficit. The Labour Party benefits in opposition, but has yet to convince it can do a better job in government. And technically the coalition has worked well, arguing out priorities and differences in cabinet and in public, a refreshing change from Labour’s private factionalism. The two leaders talk of acting together in the medium to long term beyond the next election, but they studiously avoid any commitment to another coalition and their base memberships resist any such conclusion. Some of their deepest disagreements have been over political reform of the House of Lords and political boundaries, demonstrating how difficult it is to deliver such change.
Their statement is short on specific future proposals. These are to follow over the next year on welfare reform, infrastructure spending and education but will all be constrained by financial stringency and policy differentiation between the two parties.
The review commits the two parties to membership of the European Union, a welcome statement of intent, but one that will be increasingly troublesome to deliver as the Conservative base becomes more Eurosceptic. This illustrates very well how British politics are being divided by arguments over the country’s proper international position. Mr Cameron’s forthcoming speech on Europe is keenly awaited here and throughout the EU for insight on how he will manage that issue.