United the Coalition Stands, Divided it Falls

Badmouthing each other is not a path to electoral success. Clegg and Cameron must defend what they have achieved together

Features UK Politics
In it together: The guilty secret of the coalition is the frequency with which David Cameron and Nick Clegg privately agree

Disappointed love can be a bitterly destructive force. When a couple start using their intelligence to identify each other’s faults, and each side goes round telling anyone who will listen how he or she has been exploited, one begins to fear that divorce is not far off. Instead of giving thanks for all the things they have achieved together, each partner begins regretting all the things he or she could have done, and might still do, if liberated from this encumbering relationship. Before long, demeaning wrangles begin about the division of property and custody of the children.

Things have not got quite that bad between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. But each party can be seen positioning itself for the general election of May 2015: a process that may seem to involve seeing the faults in its coalition partner. A few days before writing this piece, I interviewed Nick Boles for ConservativeHome, and could not help noticing the tone of disillusion in which he spoke about the Liberal Democrats. Boles, who used to run Policy Exchange and is now planning minister and MP for Grantham and Stamford, is an outspoken Tory of liberal disposition. He was a prominent enthusiast for the coalition with the Lib Dems, and his disappointment with them springs from the discovery that they are not liberal: “When you look at the Liberal Democrats, what I find completely amazing is how they can carry on spouting guff about Gladstone and liberalism, and put Liberal next to their names on the ballot paper, while co-operating with statist Labour to try to bring in a much more draconian system of state regulation of the press.”

The Conservatives lament that they have been coerced by the Lib Dems into devising the Royal Charter on press regulation: a measure to which the Tories on their own would never have consented. They believe David Cameron was forced to go for the charter because otherwise the Lib Dems and Labour would have cooked up something far worse, and made the Conservatives look weak and isolated.

Once the suspicion starts that the Lib Dems would much rather be off doing things with Labour, there is no end to it. On entering government with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems lost the great chunk of their support which had backed them in the mistaken belief that they would help keep the Conservatives out of power. This defection was confirmed by the tuition fees debacle, which suggested the Lib Dems could not be trusted to keep their promises. These left-inclined voters tended to go to Labour, which is one reason why despite uninspiring leadership, Labour’s support has not collapsed. The Lib Dems are desperate to get them back, which is why they can be expected from now on to emphasise how left-wing they are. Nick Clegg cannot afford to fight the election as Cameron’s stooge. 

But even as I enter this world of tactical calculation, I feel repelled by it. Too much political commentary consists of shrewd, or supposedly shrewd, attempts to work out how Clegg or Cameron or Ed Miliband will try to manipulate key segments of the electorate next time. Of course, in a tight election such manoeuvres could make the difference between success and failure. But they also tend to put millions of people off voting at all, or else send them into the arms of parties such as UKIP which appear less contaminated by the assumption that people are just there to be manipulated.

The underlying problem for British Conservatives is not their relationship with the Lib Dems. It is their relationship with the British people. Why are the Conservatives still seen as a party of the rich? Why are they not thought to be on the side of ordinary people? Why have they not won an election since 1992? Why —dread phrase — does the Tory brand remain “contaminated”?

Tim Montgomerie, in The Times, has said this is because Cameron “pursued the wrong kind of modernisation in his early years — a trendy green appeal to Guardian rather than Sun readers — and didn’t even see that through”. Montgomerie wants a greater concentration on the kind of things that worry people living in places like Harlow, Essex: petrol prices, a living wage, apprenticeships. These are worthy causes, but “the wrong kind of modernisation” is an excuse reminiscent of the claim that “the wrong kind of snow” has brought the trains to a halt. The trains should be robust enough to run in all types of snow. The Conservative party should be robust enough to connect with the British people by expressing our sense of nationhood. 

No wonder Ed Miliband has nicked the slogan “One Nation”; he may not be able to fill it with any very convincing content, but he is perceptive enough to realise that most people want to be part of something which can be described by those words. At Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), he can be seen trying to demonstrate that Cameron is on the side of the millionaires, the hedge funds and the energy companies: that he is the prime minister of a country split into Two Nations, the rich and the poor, and is only capable of understanding and sympathising with the first of these.

Cameron responds by being as rude as he can about Labour and its leaders. Perhaps this is a response which is forced upon him by the architecture and traditions of the Commons. We have an adversarial system, and our tradition of free speech is bound up with the right, one might say the duty, to be as rude as we can about our political opponents. At PMQs you have to show you can stand up for yourself, or your own side convicts you of lack of fighting spirit. 

But I still think that by reacting in this way, Cameron unintentionally fosters the idea that we are in fact divided into Two Nations. When the Daily Mail accused Ralph Miliband of hating Britain, it made the same mistake. It excluded a man who ought to have been included. One of the characteristics of our nation is its comprehensiveness. It includes all sorts of people who hold ridiculous or indeed pernicious opinions, but that does not stop them from being British. Unless they break the law, we tolerate such people, and are even faintly proud of ourselves for tolerating them. This is one of the ways in which we tame the dissenter: instead of taking his ideas as seriously as he takes them himself, we turn him into an amusing local character, who can be pointed out to visitors as one of the sights of the neighbourhood.

Cameron should do a bit more of that to Miliband. The Labour leader’s pose as a man of the people is ridiculous. He is actually yet another PPE graduate, a policy wonk who, if anything, has even less experience of how ordinary people live than Cameron does. Miliband deserves to be treated as misguided rather than malevolent: a decent man whose main fault is his touching naivety, for his knowledge of the world is derived entirely from books and policy papers. Hence his wonkish belief (or am I muddling him up with Ed Balls?) that the answer to at least 11 different problems is to impose a new tax on the banks and spend the proceeds on some implausible state-run scheme. The day Miliband will know he has failed is the day he is laughed at by his own backbenchers, because Cameron has demonstrated to them that the Labour leader is a bit of a joke.

It is pointless for the Tories to attack either the Lib Dems or Labour. Lord Ashcroft demonstrated this in Minority Verdict, his account of what went wrong in the 2010 campaign: “The sheer pointlessness of attacking Gordon Brown was demonstrated once and for all in Rochdale on April 28, 2010, when he climbed into his car and, addressing not just his staff but his still-live lapel microphone and therefore the world, unburdened himself of the view that Mrs Gillian Duffy, the harmless pensioner to whom he had just been chatting, was a ‘bigoted woman’. This excruciating incident mesmerised the media and dominated the news for a day and a half, yet it had absolutely no discernible impact on voting intention polls. This was because people had long since formed a judgment about Mr Brown. Those who had taken against him had either already decided not to vote for him, or that they would vote for him even though he was prone to behaving like this.”

If the Tories spend the next year and a half attacking either Clegg or Miliband, they will obscure the very good story about what they have been able to achieve in government, and will suggest that they too are just another bunch of snide, arrogant, untrustworthy, over-privileged scoundrels. That would be a waste, for the truth is that Cameron and his colleagues have been extraordinarily good at making coalition government work. As Matthew d’Ancona points out at the start of In It Together (Viking), his account of the inner workings of the coalition, the “guilty secret” of Cameron and Clegg “has often been that the two party leaders privately agree”.

Why should Cameron feel guilty about this? It is to the credit of him and his colleagues at No 10 that they have been able to run a stable and productive government. He and Clegg managed in five days to form a coalition that looks as if it may last for five years. In the foreword to their agreement, published in May 2010, the two leaders said: “We have found that a combination of our parties’ best ideas and attitudes has produced a programme for government that is more radical and comprehensive than our individual manifestos.” This remains true. In fields such as welfare, education, taxation, pensions, employment and perhaps even health, the coalition is making reforms which are likely to endure. It is true that more could have been done, but it is also true that very much less might have been achieved. The whole thing could have collapsed in acrimony in a matter of months.

This is a story which the British press is almost incapable of telling. We exist to tell bad news and to point out what is wrong with our masters. If we go to talk to Iain Duncan Smith about his welfare reforms, we wish at the very least to come away with a line about how the computers are not going to work. It is unprofessional to say that things are going quite well: that people like Danny Alexander, David Laws, Oliver Letwin and Ed Llewellyn are usually able to reach sensible agreements. One is liable to be dismissed as a sycophant or a bore. How much better to report, no doubt truthfully, that the coalition was last night plunged into a new row about free schools, or Europe, or press regulation, or public sector pay, or airports.

But in electoral terms, Cameron has to play to his strengths. He is unlikely ever to form a deep emotional bond with the British people. What he can do is present himself as the leader who knows how to restore this nation to prosperity. He is too self-contained and well-behaved to be loveable, but he has the unglamorous qualities of patience, stamina, reliability and reasonableness which are needed to make a partnership work. Let the Lib Dems trash their own record if they wish. If they feel the need to denounce the party with which they have worked in close harness for the last three and a half years, let them do so. But although, as Tory and Labour candidates who have fought them at local level will testify, they can be extraordinarily disreputable, nothing except a temporary relief to one’s own feelings is to be gained by chucking insults back. 

I asked a policy wonk at the Tory conference what he thought the chances were of the Conservatives getting an overall majority next time. He replied: “Seven per cent.” I think the chances are a bit better than that, but only if the Tories talk about the good things they intend to do, and have already done, rather than the despicable qualities of the partner with whom they did them.