Cameron and Clegg give 'Ronseal' coalition a fresh coat of varnish
Politicians, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, campaign in poetry but govern in prose. In Downing Street’s rose garden in May 2010, David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s coalition pact had the look of Camelot, even if all involved knew the early romance would be supplanted by the dull weight of governing.
Two and a half years on, the two men came together yesterday to review progress and pledge that a coalition many of their own people hate would continue right down to the wire of the next election, due by law to be held in May 2015.
The two were not in a marriage, said prime minister Cameron.
Rather, they are in a political relationship vitally necessary in 2010 to safeguard the UK from international turmoil, a relationship since tested by fire.
“To me it’s not a marriage. It is, if you like, it’s a Ronseal deal: it does what it says on the tin. We said we would come together, we said we would form a government, we said we would tackle these problems.
“We said we would get on with it in a mature and sensible way . . . and that is exactly what we’ve done,” said Cameron who, like Clegg, looked like he could have done with a few extra days’ leave over Christmas.
Indeed, he argued that the coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats has made it easier to push through some of the tough measures taken since, including significant changes to welfare rules.
The logic of his comments – that coalitions are best – will not be lost on many of his Conservative backbenchers, who have been suspicious from the start about the extent of Cameron’s hunger for single-party rule.
Within minutes, much of the content of the much-vaunted midterm review was shredded by critics, including Labour leader Ed Miliband, who accused Cameron and Clegg of a lack of ambition.
However, the main difficulty for Cameron and Clegg is economic: all of their political planning was based on two or three years of cuts, followed by growth, followed by a triumphant return to the electorate in 2015.
That plan is dead: cuts will continue until 2018 at the earliest, if not later – a date that requires the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to agree spending figures for first two years of the next parliament.
Probability of incoherence
Such an agreement, to be meaningful, must bind the two parties closer together than many in each would like in the run-up to 2015, creating the probability, if not the inevitability, of incoherence in the minds of voters.Most of Cameron’s people, however, do not want a united front – they say the Conservatives should be in power on their own.
The Liberal Democrats cannot afford to risk a lack of unity, since they may be glad of any port once the electoral storm hits.
Today, MPs will vote on welfare changes that will limit rises to just 1 per cent a year for the next three years. It is a move some say will increase child poverty, and which others say is a necessary action to show that people are all in it together.
So far the welfare cuts – part of a Conservative-led agenda – are among the Government’s most-liked policies in a country where discussion has already moved on to talk of the deserving and not-so-deserving poor.
Despite everything, the coalition retains a lead on economic issues over Labour – a reflection, perhaps, of the latter’s decision to say very little of consequence so far out from the polls, or of its inability to say anything of consequence.
In time all that will change.
For now, however, British voters seem to be faced with a government they do not like but do not seem to hate with the passion of old – and an opposition they have yet to come to love.