Talk is Cheap: Now It’s Time for Action

David Cameron has his hands full keeping his coalition with Nick Clegg going while the country is in crisis. Is he up to the task?

Historians looking back on the six days following the 2010 general election may conclude that an attempt — only partially successful — was made to mount a very un-British coup. On Thursday May 6, the Conservatives won 306 seats compared to 258 for Labour and 57 for the Liberal Democrats. In Labour’s worst debacle since the late Michael Foot’s humiliation by Margaret Thatcher in 1983, the party polled two million fewer votes than the Tories and lost nearly 100 seats. Although the Conservatives were denied an overall majority, there could be no doubt that the Labour government had lost decisively. The normal constitutional procedure in such circumstances had hitherto been for the incumbent, once he had satisfied himself of the impossibility of commanding a majority in the Commons, to offer his resignation to the Queen. The monarch would then invite the Leader of the Opposition, in this case David Cameron, to attempt to form either a minority or a coalition government. 

Yet as the nation waited expectantly for Cameron to be summoned by the Queen to become her 12th Prime Minister, it became clear on Friday May 7 that Gordon Brown was stubbornly refusing to concede defeat. A small band of desperados sought to rewrite the unwritten constitution, overturning the damning verdict of the electorate on the government. Led by Lord Mandelson and Alastair Campbell — two of the most devious men in British politics — and the diehards of the Left led by Ed Balls, the putschists took over the reins of government, occupying Downing Street and refusing to concede defeat. They planned to cobble together a coalition of the two “progressive” parties who had lost the election, with the aim of excluding the clear victor. Their plot was to rewrite the rules of the electoral system in order to usurp the power that rightfully belonged to the Conservatives. As it emerged that the plotters had been putting out feelers to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, behind the Tories’ backs, a wave of revulsion swept the country, including any Labour members with a shred of decency left. It was an affront to democracy. The former Labour Cabinet minister John Reid warned that by trying to concoct a “coalition of the losers”, Labour and the Liberals were risking “mutually assured destruction” at the hands of the electorate. David Blunkett indignantly declared that his colleagues were deaf to the message the voters were giving them. None of this could shame the usurpers, who sought to sabotage the most distinctive mechanism of the British system: the inalienable right to throw the rascals out.

To his eternal shame, Brown himself took part in these machinations and thereby put at risk the prestige of his office. Once the scale of his defeat at the ballot box had become clear, at the latest by the morning after polling day, Brown had the opportunity to leave Downing Street with more dignity than he had ever shown during the 13 years that he had lived there, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and latterly as Prime Minister.  Instead, Brown waited until the following Monday to announce that he would step down as leader of the Labour Party, though not until a successor could be found. Even then, he clung to the trappings of prime ministerial office, refusing for another 24 hours to make the short journey to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation, in the vain hope that his shadowy junta could conjure a government out of thin air to be the vehicle for a mythical “progressive majority” — itself a figment of the fevered imaginations of Guardian columnists. When Brown finally admitted defeat, on the afternoon of Tuesday May 11, he demanded an audience with the Queen, in order to resign immediately. After one of his abrupt mood swings, he had switched from inordinate delay to indecent haste. Now, however, the Palace apparently rebuffed his request. By this time talks between the Tories, whose team was led by William Hague, and the Liberal Democrats were at a crucial stage and the Queen did not want to take the risk of Britain’s first coalition government since 1945 being strangled at birth. Brown, impatient to go, was made to wait a while until it became clear that a deal had been struck between Cameron and Clegg. Meanwhile, he was left alone in his bunker, apart from the plotters who eventually crept out by the back door. According to a Guardian photographer who overheard the Prime Minister taking a phone call from his chief whip Nick Brown at 4pm, Gordon Brown said: “I’ve got to go to the Palace. The country expects me to do that. I have to go. The Queen expects me to go. I can’t hold on any longer.” Was this said in front of the press for effect? In any event, it was an all-too belated recognition of what had all along been his duty: to submit to the judgment of democracy. However, Clegg was not yet done with Brown: even as the PM prepared to go to the Palace, the Lib Dem leader was still on the phone, trying to extract more concessions from Labour with which to haggle in his talks with Cameron, until an exasperated Brown was heard to say: “Whatever happens, I am going to the Palace.”  

The Prime Minister arrived at the Palace at 7.26pm. The Queen did not detain him for long; the nation gave a collective whoop of joy. It was as if a nightmare had come to an end, a depression had been lifted, a volcanic cloud had been blown away by a fresh breeze. The rainbow over Buckingham Palace symbolised the calm after the storm and, as the Cameron couple arrived in their silver Jaguar, the palpable sense of relief that the Queen’s government would be properly carried on obscured the fact that the Conservative leader should by rights have been sent for five days earlier. 

Hovering in the wings during the dying days of New Labour was the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell. It was he who choreographed the creation of the coalition government, from the unprecedented decision to postpone the Queen’s Speech for three whole weeks, allowing ample breathing space, to the provision of the Cabinet Office for negotiations. Sir Gus and his Civil Service colleagues deliberately kept the Queen out of the picture until it had become inevitable that Cameron would form a coalition with the Lib Dems. Any possibility of a minority Tory government was pre-empted by Brown’s baleful presence in Downing Street during that crucial weekend after the election. The fact that Cameron was not yet PM meant that he could not negotiate from a position of strength. Cameron and Clegg both co-operated in the preordained ritual that Sir Gus had, for the first time, set down in writing to regulate the transition of power. Having declared on the Friday morning that his preference was for a coalition, Cameron was then locked into these procedures. Thus Britain had its first taste of the Continental-style coalition formation that the constitutional “experts” have decided should become the norm, once the electoral system has been brought into line with the European consensus. The peculiarities of the British constitution, such as its adversarial principle, are being systematically eliminated, despite the remarkable demonstration during the post-election interregnum of the inevitable consequences of proportional representation.

What, though, of the coalition itself?  Unlike most previous Deputy Prime Ministers such as Willie Whitelaw, Michael Heseltine or John Prescott, Clegg will have an effective veto over Cabinet policy. The office is a constitutional innovation of the last (wartime) coalition, when Clement Attlee deputised to enable Winston Churchill to concentrate on the war. In peacetime, Clegg will have less scope for independent action but will also feel less inhibited about intervening whenever he (or his colleagues) decide to dissent from the majority in Cabinet. Based in the Cabinet Office, Clegg only needs to walk down a corridor to see Cameron. He is in almost as close proximity to 10 Downing Street as the Vice-President’s office is to the Oval Office in the White House. Moreover, Clegg is explicitly entrusted with the field of political reform, steering legislation through Parliament that will alter the constitution in fundamental ways: fixed five-year terms, a 55 per cent threshold for a vote of no confidence, a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, which tends to entrench the third party permanently in office as an indispensable coalition partner. Cameron’s former leadership rival David Davis is leading the campaign against the 55 per cent threshold, with Professor Peter Hennessy and even the former Lib Dem — and Labour transport minister — Lord Adonis denouncing it as unconstitutional. They are right. This is not a constitutional reform but a revolution. The cardinal principle that no Parliament can bind its successor would be circumscribed. The assumption underlying Clegg’s project is that coalition governments are in future to become the norm. Over the next five years, Anglo-Saxon constitutional exceptionalism will be whittled away to bring the British body politic into closer conformity with European politics. Across the Atlantic, observers have been taken aback by many aspects of the new dispensation in Britain, as John Bolton reports elsewhere in this issue. After watching the mother of Parliaments reveal herself as the whore of Babylon last year, Americans are now presented with the unsettling spectacle of a political sex change operation: the metamorphosis of Westminster into Brussels.

How well the coalition will function in adversity is still a mystery. In one sense, at least, the partners now share a common destiny: they will sink or swim together. The Liberal Democrats, it must be hoped, are already discovering a taste for power. After 70 years in the wilderness, they will be in no hurry to relinquish the fleshpots of Whitehall. Nor will their supporters, who are savouring the fact that for the first time their votes have actually delivered real political changes in policy and personnel. The coalition Cabinet that has emerged is certainly much more impressive than the Labour one it replaced: a good balance of youth and experience, if not of the sexes. The government will have to be more than the sum of its manifesto commitments. Indeed, it is vital that the programme include more than the thin gruel of across-the-board economies. An austerity programme alone would risk a popular backlash. There is also the danger of losing momentum, especially with a long shopping list of Liberal Democrat election pledges to satisfy before the youthful Treasury team of George Osborne and David Laws can get down to the hard pounding of spending cuts and tax rises. The emergency Budget, on June 22, should be a test of the strength of the Cameron-Clegg alliance. More than that, it will enable the watchful markets to measure just how far their deeds match their words. Like Robin Hood, Clegg and his merry men want to be feared by the rich and loved by the poor, but they must know by now that Labour ran out of other people’s money some time ago. Short-term, we should expect onerous taxes on consumption, capital gains, banks and just about anything else that Middle England is wedded to. In due course, however, I expect Osborne to remind his Lib Dem colleagues that it is quite easy to kill the middle-class goose that lays the golden eggs everyone else enjoys. 

In reality, there is no alternative to a medium-term strategy built around drastic deficit reduction, the like of which Britain has not seen since Geoffrey Howe’s 1981 Budget, which Margaret Thatcher’s economic adviser, Alan Walters, called “the biggest fiscal squeeze of peacetime”. That Budget provoked a storm of protest, including the notorious letter to The Times signed by 364 academic economists, warning of dire consequences unless the Thatcher government reversed course. Norman Stone calls that letter a “suicide note”, and it is true that the 1981 crisis marked the moment when monetarist ideas from the United States replaced the post-war Keynesian orthodoxy. But the victory of Thatcherism was never a foregone conclusion, even after the Falklands War and her electoral triumph in 1983. “You know, Alan, they may get rid of me for this. At least I shall have gone, knowing that I did the right thing.” 

Now the challenge for Cameron is to take a similar risk. This time the fiscal squeeze will have to be harsher still, and he must never forget that we are not at peace, but at war — a war not just against the Taliban, but the shadowy forces of global jihad, a war of which no end is yet in sight. Will the condominium with Clegg make it easier or more difficult to gamble? The chances are that coalition government will be more cautious, more conventional, more consensual and less confrontational than the great reforming leaders of the past, who could usually rely on their own majority to provide solid support. But consensus politics is a luxury that the country cannot afford. Cameron will have to gamble, and he has to be able to rely on Clegg. If Cameron finds himself with his back to the wall, beset by the media and perhaps by rebellions in his own ranks, will Clegg back him or sack him? For the junior partner in this coalition has the power, despite their solemn “prenuptial agreement”, to bring the whole thing crashing down. At the first Cabinet meeting, Vince Cable observed archly that his Indian in-laws had assured him that arranged marriages were sometimes better than those born out of love. But trust is also a factor in relationships, and Clegg has already shown that he is quite capable of two-timing the Tories. He who sups with the Liberal Democrats needs a long spoon.

The presence of radical reformers of schools and welfare respectively, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, should ensure that the government maintains at least some principles beyond good housekeeping. Gove made a good start by restoring the old departmental title “Education Secretary”, instead of his predecessor Ed Balls’s amorphous appellation “Children, Schools and Families”. That change was first advocated here in Standpoint, in Gove’s Dialogue with Chris Woodhead last January. In due course, the education department’s responsibilities for child welfare and family policy should be given to Duncan Smith. The nucleus of an authentic Conservative revival is already discernable in the Cabinet, centred on Michael Gove, Liam Fox and IDS. If they are allied with the able and experienced group of Tory ministers just below Cabinet rank, such as Oliver Letwin, David Willetts, Greg Clark, Damian Green and Dominic Grieve, they should be able to put flesh on the bones of the Big Society, which fell so flat with voters at the election. The “decontamination” of the Conservative “brand”, which Michael Portillo hails as Cameron’s triumph, has in fact left an intellectual vacuum which must now be filled as a matter of urgency. Recruiting Frank Field as poverty czar was a very good start, but leaking the news before he had agreed was crass and nearly scuppered the deal.

The trouble is that the Conservative rank and file know full well that the party ran a lousy election campaign, but the leadership has still not accepted the consequences. The splendid Tim Montgomerie has already set out a detailed critique on ConservativeHome, with which it is hard to disagree. The themes were mixed and muddled, there was no attempt to nail Labour’s catastrophic failures, and the public was given no strong positive reason to vote Conservative. Above all, the decision to take part in the TV debates cost Cameron his lead. The strategy in marginal seats using Lord Ashcroft’s money yielded disappointing results in some cases, such as Hammersmith and Westminster North. When Cameron conducts his post mortem, as he must, three individuals should take responsibility for the failure to achieve a majority: George Osborne, Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson. Of these three, Osborne will have his hands full as Chancellor from now on. Hilton and Coulson have no such excuse. It is necessary for leaders sometimes to be ruthless with their friends, and Cameron should dispense with the Falstaffs of CCHQ forthwith. Lord Ashcroft, too, must take some responsibility: the impression of unaccountable power and influence was damaging to Cameron and he would be wise to keep his distance henceforth. 

As for the new party co-chairman, Baroness Warsi, she will have to show that she has earned her place in the Cabinet, not merely as a Muslim woman but on merit. We can only hope that she will see her new role in a less sectarian light than her previous one as shadow communities secretary, when she made far too many sacrifices in order to propitiate political Islam. While it is true that she was pelted with eggs in Luton last November by thugs from the extremist group al-Muhajiroun, Sayeeda Warsi routinely appeases less violent Islamists. For example, in her Conservative Party conference speech last year, she parrotted Peter Oborne’s false claim that anti-Muslim hatred is Britain’s last remaining socially acceptable form of bigotry. Instead of depicting British Muslims as victims of prejudice and encouraging their sense of grievance, the Baroness should acknowledge that British society has responded to sustained Islamist terrorism at home and abroad with its customary but nonetheless commendable generosity of spirit. Her career is testimony to this. The question is rather: will she work hard to quell the tide of anti-Semitism in Britain that is fuelled by the relentless hatred of Israel that is endemic in the Muslim community? 

This brings us to the whole question of foreign policy. Britain is still an essential bastion of Western civilisation and must continue to play its part in upholding the values of that civilisation. But we must hope that this government, for all its faults, will not flinch in the face of our enemies. A partial withdrawal from Afghanistan next year has already been announced by President Barack Obama. The Con-Lib coalition too will be keen to beat a retreat, leaving the region to an uncertain future. “This wasn’t our war,” the Lib Dems say openly. The Tories say it too in private. The first priority is the long overdue formation of a National Security Council on the US model. General Sir Richard Dannatt’s presence should serve to stiffen the backbones of fainthearted ministers. He points out, rightly, that it is better to fight the Islamists in Afghanistan than be forced to confront them closer to home. But Afghanistan is not the only challenge: there will undoubtedly be new questions of war and peace, as the jihadi hordes, emboldened by displays of weakness in Washington and disunity in the Atlantic alliance, renew their global guerrilla war. There was tough talk about the need for sanctions against Iran from William Hague at his meeting with Hillary Clinton, intended to pave the way for a White House visit in July for Cameron to repair frosty relations with America’s least Anglophile President for a century. 

The repair job starts here: William Hague meets Hillary Clinton in Washington 

Tough talk, of course, is cheap. What we need to know is how robust the Cameron-Clegg alliance will be when faced with a direct threat to Western interests, from whichever quarter it may come. If Tehran continues in its brazen attempt to annihilate the state of Israel, or China threatens to seize Taiwan, or al-Qaeda succeeds in carrying out another audacious attack on the scale of 9/11, the Bush doctrine of pre-emption may need to be dusted down and reactivated by a chastened Obama administration. That would confront Cameron and Clegg with the same choice that Thatcher and Blair faced in their day: Atlanticist or European? While neither man would relish that choice, there is little doubt that their instincts would incline them in opposite directions. That might prove to be the moment of truth for this government. The country expects a thoroughbred. It may require a warhorse. But a pantomime horse won’t do. Britain won both world wars with coalition governments. That was possible because there was no doubt about the natural authority of Lloyd George and Churchill. This time, too, David Cameron cannot rely on the authority of his office, but must assert his leadership by sheer force of character. Character is like marriage: its strength only becomes apparent when it is tested. When the coalition is tested, the temptation will be to take the line of least resistance. Only God can deliver us from evil, but David Cameron can at least lead us not into temptation.

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