Just before the general election, the Conservatives released a party political
broadcast warning that a coalition would bring disaster. “Under-the-table
deals will be the order of the day,” we were told. The fate awaiting savers
was depicted by a hammer smashing a piggy bank. The process of proper
government would be subverted by policies being “bickered over by secret
committees”. And instead of Cabinet government, there would be an “end to
It has taken time, but this prophecy now seems to be coming horribly true.
Savers? Their only choice is deciding which bank to lose money with – every
single one is offering negative real interest rates. The secret committees?
We have the Quad: David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny
Alexander, his Liberal Democrat deputy. This quartet, in effect, runs the
Government: its conclusions are announced to members of the Cabinet, who
duly take note and shuffle off back to their departments. The rest of us
have very little idea how decisions are taken – or we didn’t, until the
extraordinary kerfuffle over Mr Clegg’s plans for universal free school
This policy was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister last year, at his party
conference. At the time, it was hailed as a great concession wrung from the
parsimonious Tories. Its real origin, we now know, was in one of those
under-the-table deals. The Prime Minister wanted to spend £700 million to
support marriage in the tax system, so he granted Clegg a free wish – to the
same value – in return. The Deputy Prime Minister, who had until then shown
no interest in free school meals, suddenly declared their extension to be a
burning priority for his party.
The problem was that no one told the Department for Education until a few
hours before Mr Clegg’s announcement. Its officials were appalled, saying
the idea was expensive and unworkable. Some 1,700 schools have no kitchens:
what were they to do? How was this to be funded? The Prime Minister, too,
was baffled, not least by the idea that his children should qualify for free
government lunches. But he did not confront Mr Clegg: if it kept the
Coalition ticking, he would not protest.
Normally, we’d know none of this. But the whistle has been blown by Dominic
Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove. This was, he said, a
perfect example of bad government – of schools, and taxpayers’ money, being
used to win headlines. His disclosure seems to have driven Mr Clegg quite
mad: only this week he demanded that Mr Gove and David Laws, his Lib Dem
deputy, pen a joint article pretending that they agree over the policy.
Creating such a fuss has, of course, only served to help make Cummings’s
essential point: that coalition brings with it feuds, power struggles and
shabby deals. The same can be seen in the extraordinary role given to a
rotten institution at the heart of the Coalition. This is the Cabinet’s home
affairs committee, through which most policies have to pass. Since it is
chaired by Nick Clegg, he is able to veto any proposal he thinks the Tories
are keen on, so he can keep it hostage. He may release it later, but only if
he is granted a favour (or three) in return. This horse-trading happens
within the Quad, in which the Lib Dems hold 50 per cent of the power – not
bad for a party that has just 9 per cent of the seats.
That Tory advert in 2010 also warned that coalition would rob British
government of transparency. So it has proved: even Cabinet members now have
no idea what happens in the Quad’s meetings. The broadcast jokingly promised
a “brave new world of undemocratic processes”. What else can you call a
committee used by Lib Dems to hold the rest of government to ransom?
There are plenty more examples of bad policy, created by the chaos of
coalition. Consider the recent bizarre idea of granting minority status to
the Cornish. This was intended to help Lib Dem prospects in the South West:
the announcement was made by Danny Alexander, who just happened to be
visiting the area. The American idea of pork-barrel politics – favours for
selected chunks of the electorate – is slowly being introduced.
We shouldn’t blame Mr Clegg: he is simply doing his best to turn the chaos to
his party’s advantage. He was driven to such behaviour because his first
approach to government – honest co-operation and shared radicalism – was not
working. Joining up with the Tories cut the Lib Dems’ support in half. He
fears their identity has been subsumed in the Coalition, so he is picking
fights to stand out again. And he’s doing so not to save his job, but to
save his party – whose main preoccupation is, as always, survival.
There is no evidence that coalition has helped the Conservatives, either. The
Prime Minister has been reduced to acting as horse-trader-in-chief. Tory
ministers routinely complain that his staff have been turned into emissaries
for Nick Clegg, seeming interested only in keeping the Lib Dems happy. As a
result, not enough thought is going into the Conservative message – as is
evident in the party’s strategy ahead of next week’s European and local
Exhibit A is the fairly uninspiring pamphlets that will be filling wastepaper
baskets all over Britain in the next few days. Chief among the lists of Tory
boasts is cutting the deficit – but the actual progress has been abysmal.
Next comes a claim that income tax cuts have saved the typical voter £705 a
year – but the real figure is closer to £550, which evaporates entirely when
the VAT increase is considered. Then there’s a warning that Labour would
bring “more borrowing and more taxes”. True – but the Tories plan the same.
After four years, one would have hoped for a longer, more impressive and more
honest list of accomplishments. And had the Prime Minister been focusing
more on his own tribe, he’d find plenty more to say. What about the school
reforms, which will give the parents of 150,000 pupils the choice in
education that only the rich have been able to afford? When the Prime
Minister boasts about the astonishing increase in jobs for British workers,
why not link it more clearly to his welfare or immigration reforms? There is
a broader, better and truer Conservative success story – but as yet, it has
When the Coalition held its marriage ceremony in the Rose Garden of No 10,
many cynics, myself included, predicted its early demise. We were wrong.
David Cameron’s success in creating and sustaining this alliance has been
nothing short of extraordinary. Mr Clegg’s initial concessions, on tuition
fees and public spending, were substantial and sincere. The Coalition has
been a historic political achievement – yet it’s hard, now, to see who has
benefited other than Ed Miliband. For all the power wielded by the Lib Dems,
coalition seems to have been quite toxic to their popular support. They may
lose all of their MEPs next week – quite some blow for a party that feels so
deeply for Europe.
The Coalition will stagger on until the general election, but it’s difficult
to point to any successes other than its survival. Still, at least the
Tories won’t need to pay for another broadcast warning voters off
coalitions. The past five years have been one long, expensive advert for why
the experiment should not be repeated.
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