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Commentary 353 – June 2012
08 June 2012 (13:35:29)


The problem isn’t the coalition; it’s what the coalition does.

Those things are subtly different and, in the wake of a second local election debacle, it is worth remembering that being in coalition was a hazard the Liberal Democrats always had to navigate at some point, were they to get anywhere politically. The alternative was some improbable conjunction of circumstances in which the party went from third to first place in one leap.

When the opportunity came, it came together with an economic crisis, a dangerously inexperienced party leader and the traditional enemy as the only partner on offer.

Two years on, the problems can be seen. The theory of coalitions was that they would succeed because, with the backing of two or more parties, they would command wider public support, and have to take account of wider interests, than do single party governments.

We know differently now. This is an almost uniquely friendless government. Many of the most prominently active members of both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives dislike it and consider it at best a pale reflection of what they would like to see. The media is almost wholly hostile – the left because it loathes Conservatives, the right because it wants a Conservative government and thinks it might get this by destabilising the coalition.

This activist and media hostility could be coped with – indeed might not be happening at all – if the coalition were popular and successful.

Instead, it is suffering from the loss of hope among voters. There is no light showing at the end of the economic tunnel, only a dogmatic attachment to the deficit size and the AAA credit rating, things that are abstract and incomprehensible in most voters’ minds.

Even that might not have mattered had the coalition’s economic policy worked as intended, but it hasn’t.

George Osborne has admitted he is no longer on course to dispose of the deficit before the next election, the country has tipped back into recession, unemployment is worsening and there is no sign that the private sector can or will create jobs to compensate for public spending cuts.

It’s hurting, but it’s not working. Indeed, things are getting worse for most people.

The public will put up with some nasty economic medicine if it can see a purpose and results from it, but while the coalition convinced most people of a purpose in 2010, no-one can now see the results, and that is above all what is driving hostility to the coalition parties.

Unless the coalition parties can offer voters some hope, and take some action that will encourage growth, their electoral performance will continue downwards.

The Tories, even in the dark days of 1997, could rely on a core vote of 30%. The Liberal Democrats, having not troubled to cultivate a core vote, can rely at best on about 10% at the next election. Not enough to save many seats.


It is unwise to predict the outcome of the Leveson inquiry, but a path may be to hand for those who have wondered how the Liberal Democrats can successfully extract themselves from the coalition ahead of the next general election.

Suppose it becomes untenable to be in coalition because the Conservatives have become mired in a corruption scandal of such epic proportions over News International that their public standing plumbs depths last seen 15 years ago.

From what we already know, this is entirely possible. The country was days away from the Tories handing over the whole of BSkyB to Murdoch, until the revelations about Milly Dowler’s phone arose last summer.

Anyone who thinks this would have happened for any reason other than actual or promised political favours is naïve.

And that would not have been the end of it. The Tories wanted to weaken rules on broadcasting neutrality so that something like America’s Fox News could have set up in the UK – and guess which party would have benefited from that.

With no Liberal Democrat minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and with Nick Clegg’s lamentable record on spotting political trouble, who is to say that it would not have happened but for the Guardian, Private Eye and a few other outlets having doggedly pursued the phone hacking story?

Material already aired at Leveson suggests both that the police were corrupted and that politicians, where not actively sympathetic anyway, lived in such fear of a ‘monstering’ by the Murdoch newspapers that they did as asked.

Labour was, of course, equally up to its neck in Murdoch while in office. But since the Murdochs never had any interest in trying to corrupt the Liberal Democrats, the party may emerge with providentially clean hands from all this, just in time to fight the next election.

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