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A Managed Break-Up Of The Coalition?

Last Updated: Friday, May 17th, 2013

In September 2014, the party conference season will be a few weeks away, and the general election only six months distant – assuming, of course, that this Parliament is still sitting: the Fixed Terms Parliament Act makes it very likely that this will be the case.  Let us also suppose that this Coalition Government is still in place, too, and that both opinion polls and local results suggest that a hung Parliament is a possible outcome of the coming election.  This is not an unreasonable set of assumptions.

In such circumstances, the leadership of the three main parties will have an eye to such an outcome.  It would be astonishing if there were no back door overtures by the Liberal Democrats to Ed Miliband – especially if Nick Clegg is no longer in place as their leader.  It would also be very surprising if these were not picked up by the media.  Trust between the two governing parties – which has not recovered from their fall out over the AV referendum, and won’t do so in this Parliament – will wither further.

The flow of special advisers from Downing Street and government, both Conservative and Liberal Democrat, will gather speed.  Amidst such a febrile atmosphere, it will be even harder for the Coalition partners to agree on radical legislation – and for their leaderships to persuade backbenchers to vote for it, since those from each party will be as resentful of each other as ever (if not more so), and unwilling to upset voters who they will have face shortly by backing contentious new laws.

I think one must look at today’s front page story in the Times, and the response from other papers (such as the Daily Telegraph) in this context of this coming paralysis and gridlock.  The Times suggests that senior figures in Downing Street are considering an early break-up of the Coalition; the Telegraph is mildly dismissive of its competitor’s story.  I would be very surprised if Number 10 wasn’t considering its options – though after its bungled handling of this week’s Commons Euro-vote, nothing would surprise me.

The choice for this last six months, from David Cameron’s point of view, is a stark one.  On the one hand, for him to encourage the Coalition to break down altogether would risk his reputation for putting the national interest first, and maintaining competence and control.  On the other, for him simply to soldier on with it in place risks making him seem a victim of events.  Nature abhors a vacuum – and if one is left in Parliament, restive Conservative MPs are likely to fill it (as we’ve seen this week).

My view is that Cameron should aim for a managed break-up in this last six months, allowing backbenchers to move proposals from the forthcoming Tory manifesto on the floor of the Commons, with Conservative Ministers speaking for the proposals from the dispatch box, and voting for them whenever possible.  Admittedly, such an arrangement, which would fall somewhere between the present Coalition and Confidence and Supply, would be risky – but no less so than the bleak alternative I outline.

The flow of events points to such an outcome.  The moral of this week’s revolt on an EU referendum is that Tory MPs are more frightened of their local Euro-sceptic Conservative Associations, and of their voters, than of David Cameron and the whips (who in any event were not given clear guidance by Downing Street).  The Prime Minister could try to keep them in order by exploiting the Party’s powers to recognise and de-recognise candidates.  But that would suggest an appetite for conflict with it entirely absent this week.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Tim Loughton MP: If you’re gay, you can have a civil partnership. But if you’re straight, you can’t. What’s equal about that? “There is one amendment to the Report Stage of the Bill which I have tabled for next week around which opponents and supporters of the principle of same sex marriage can all rally. It addresses a real inequality that will be created if the Bill becomes law…If same sex marriage becomes law, then gay couples will have the choice either to go for the newly acquired right to marry or to join a new civil partnership or maintain an existing one. Conversely opposite sex couples will only have the option to marry, albeit in a wider range of religious or civil institutions. A Bill which is being pushed through (wrongly in my view) as an equality measure will therefore actually create a new and substantial inequality.” Read more: http://is.gd/F3xj0S

Paul Goodman: In public, Tory MPs are backing rebels. But in private, they’re voting for loyalists. “Fear of local voters counted as much yesterday evening as fear of local activists – at least for MPs in marginal seats, some of them are furious with Baron for pushing his amendment to the vote, and claim to have told him so.  It can be argued that this reflects badly on them, rather than Baron – that if they disagreed with his amendment, they shouldn’t have voted for it. This week’s ’22 Committee elections also suggest that while their votes were with Baron, their hearts were elsewhere.  Robert Buckland is an outspoken supporter of Britain’s E.U membership – and thus a rarity among the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs. At roughly the same time as yesterday evening’s vote, it was announced that he has been re-elected as a secretary of the 1922 Committee’s executive committee.  In public, Tory MPs may be backing the rebels, but in private they are supporting the loyalists.” Read more: http://is.gd/T6F2Z2

Andrew Gimson: Replace Grant Shapps with a Chairman who can cheer the troops “Another long-serving Tory backbencher was less charitable: “We don’t want Muppets being the voice of the Tory Party, and that’s what we’ve got with Grant Yapps.” This backbencher insisted, rather unkindly, that Shapps was becoming known as Yapps because of a tendency to yap, and added that “he called himself Michael Green for several years, for reasons no one entirely understands”…Any fair-minded observer would agree that inspiring the Tory foot soldiers is just now more difficult and more necessary than ever, given the shrinking size of the party, and the rise of UKIP. But that is why the Prime Minister should think again, and should appoint someone to the role who is already a big political figure. To leave Shapps there for the next two years would be to insult a party which already feels it has been insulted enough.” Read more: http://is.gd/tBwiih

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart: This Parliament remains on course to be the most rebellious since 1945. “Despite the reduction in the rate of rebellion from the preceding session, the Parliament still remains on course to be the most rebellious since 1945.  The rate for the Parliament as a whole (that is, 2010-13) now stands at a rebellion in 39% of divisions, easily topping the 28% seen in the 2005 Parliament.  Even if the rate of rebellion drops again by half – down to a rate of around 13% – in the remaining two sessions, we would expect the overall total for the Parliament to be 29%, still (just) enough to make it the most rebellious in the post-war era.  The good news for the whips, therefore (and right now they probably need some), is that we can report a gradual reduction in the level of backbench dissent on the Coalition side.  But the rate of rebellion in this session only appears low when compared to the unprecedentedly high levels seen in the preceding session.” Read more: http://is.gd/hPAofx

Ben Harris-Quinney: Royal Mail Privatisation – where is the debate? “I believe we should apply some simple tests before proceeding with this controversial sale – has the case for privatisation been made? Is it the best deal for the country? is it popular with the public? is it politically beneficial to our party? In all cases the answer is clearly “no”. Electorally it could be immediately damaging for the Conservative Party, which might explain the lack of debate about the issue. As with the proposed Forestry sell-off, it is my suspicion that the majority of the general public are not aware that the privatisation of Royal Mail is moving swiftly through Parliament, but that when it is too late and the decisions have already been made, public awareness will rise and it will be met with outrage and uproar.” Read more: http://is.gd/RHBfWu

Mark Wallace: The MEP selection purdah is a farce “For the duration of May, June and July, all Conservative MEPs and MEP candidates are forbidden from speaking at party events, going out campaigning with activists, host visitors at the European Parliament or even send out their regular emails updating party members on what is going on in Brussels. This is apparently intended to prevent them using their positions to drum up support.  But isn’t that rather the point of selection processes? If someone goes out campaigning, makes great speeches to members and is doing good work in Brussels, that should be seen as a good thing – not skewing the pitch for selections. It seems to me that through this farcical rule we are wasting a valuable resource, and giving MEPs and would-be candidates a perverse disincentive against going out and doing what they are meant to – campaigning for conservatism.” Read more: http://is.gd/xScHWJ

Mark Field MP: The mispricing of risk. The danger to savers. And the spectre of inflation – big themes in my first book. “The crisis kicked off by the Lehman’s collapse was brought about by an irrational exuberance, most obviously in the housing market, that made it difficult for investors to make rational risk/reward investment decisions. The next ‘crash’, if it came about in our bond markets, would instead be as a result of deliberate government economic policy.

But would such an outcome lead to social calamity? We can only hope not. Yet history is littered with periods where the debasement of money (hyperinflation) – and therefore the debasement of trust – has gone on to undermine social cohesion, not least as it has first wiped out an aspirational middle class. A wide scale destruction in the value of pension funds triggered by a bond crash would coincide with the erosion of debtors’ liabilities by inflation. This would likely trigger a deep sense of injustice, as savers and the responsible in society lose out to the profligate.” Read more: http://is.gd/0XPEG0

 

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