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The Coalition’s made up of three parts – not two

Last Updated: Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Dear Subscriber,

The conventional view of the Coalition is that it’s made up of two parts – the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. But there’s another way of thinking of it: as being made up of three – the Conservative right, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party, and the Clegg/Cameron coalition leadership.

There’s plenty of background material to flesh out this picture of the Coalition, as well as direct evidence from recent days. In examining both, I’ll concentrate on the role of David Cameron as Prime Minister in relation to his party.

First, it’s worth remembering that many new Conservative MPs – 49 per cent of the whole Parliamentary Party – aren’t signed up to the Cameron project. A Conservative Home survey of candidates towards the end of the last Parliament found that only a third of candidates in Tory target seats were members of the leader’s favoured A-list – or Priority List, to give it its official title. Though not ideological hardliners, their views tended to be traditionally Conservative – for example, their top priority was cutting the budget deficit. Their bottom was reducing Britain’s carbon footprint.

Second, many old Conservative MPs – that is, those who entered Westminster at previous elections – feel that they’ve lost out under Cameron. Some feel that he didn’t back MPs up during the expenses scandal – insisting instead that his front bench publish theirs in detail. Others haven’t made it from the Opposition front bench to Ministerial Office – no fewer than 37 at the last count. True, some have been appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretaries – unpaid assistants to Ministers – but others have probably seen the end of their front-bench careers, and are unhappy.

Third, both old and new Conservative MPs have mixed feelings about the Coalition. On the one hand, most are delighted that their Party’s in government after 13 long years in Opposition, and give the Prime Minister credit for a huge boost in the Parliamentary numbers. On the other, a lot of them – by no means all on the right – dislike the Liberal Democrats and are uneasy about working with them. And nearly all of them, at one time or another, ask: shouldn’t we have won outright? Some blame Cameron for, as they see it, throwing away an opinion poll lead of – at one juncture – some 25 points.

There’s hard evidence for these tensions between the leadership and the backbenches. No sooner was the Coalition formed than the new Prime Minister attempted to abolish the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. He proposed to merge it, in effect, with his front bench. It’s been claimed that the suggestion was put to him by John Major, who’d plenty of trouble with the ’22, as it’s known, in his days as Prime Minister.

But whether so or not, the present Prime Minister plainly aimed to stop Graham Brady, the MP for Altrincham and Sale West and right-of-party-centre candidate for the Chairmanship, from winning. Brady resigned from Cameron’s front bench when the leadership committed a Conservative Government to not permitting new grammar schools in areas where they don’t presently exist, and his relations with the Prime Minister are strained. Cameron hoped that his front bench, if allowed to participate in the election, would vote Brady down and install instead Richard Ottoway, the left-of-party-centre candidate.

In the wake of pressure from the media and MPs, the Prime Minister quickly backed down. He may have been concerned by the breadth of the coalition against the move, have been advised that it wasn’t legally or procedurally watertight or – worst of all – been advised that Brady would win anyway, which would have dealt a heavy blow to the Government.

So given that relations between Cameron and much of his Government are difficult, where’s the evidence for the three-cornered nature of the Coalition? The row over Capital Gains Tax provides one example. Conservative backbenchers, led by John Redwood and David Davis, wanted a taper. The Liberal Democrats made a manifesto commitment to a 50% rate (and no taper). George Osborne introduced no taper…but a rise of 10% only to 28% from the present 18% rate.

And, this week, Ken Clarke’s speech on criminal justice provided another. Clarke is with the Liberal Democrats on sentencing: he said that “just banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England”. His speech was therefore bound to be read as a repudiation of the legacy of his Conservative successor as Home Secretary during the 1990s, Michael Howard. Howard stepped out to make public his disagreement with Clarke. Cameron was forced to try to find a middle way between the two positions when under pressure at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Next week, the three-sided nature of the Coalition looks to be demonstrated again when details of a bill and referendum to change the voting system for Westminster are announced. Cameron and Clegg have agreed a common position on the timing. The Liberal Democrats want to drop the first-past-the-post system and replace it with the alternative vote. Conservative MPs detest AV, fearing that it may push keep their party out power, and want to stick with FPTP. The new Labour leader will have an opportunity to drive a wedge between the two parties by agreeing with the Liberal Democrats: after all, their manifesto supported a referendum. Cameron will come under pressure from his backbenchers to detach himself from Clegg and campaign actively against AV – a course he’s unwilling to adopt.

Paul Goodman


As always, please call me on 0771 726 1570 with any questions.

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