Forget leadership speculation. The party has no idea how it can leave the coalition and fight the next election independently, says Tony Greaves
We are not quite half way. That coalition milestone will be on 5 November, traditionally known in Yorkshire and Lancashire as Plot Night. But already the plotting has started and, true to form, the media have latched on to the personality politics of Nick Clegg’s future as party leader.
As I write this piece, it is three weeks to go to the conference so it’s not clear whether the facile ‘Will the Lib Dems Sack Clegg?’ story will last the pace as the media’s prior-determined Big Conference Story. But as this parliament staggers towards the fixed-term polling day of 7 May 2015, the big question is how the coalition will get through another two and a half years – and how it might end.
There is plotting among many Tory backbenchers, whose distaste for the coalition has turned into overt hatred for Liberal Democrats. There are rumblings about whether the coalition will last the distance, whether and when it might break up and on what pretext. There is some mystery about what the coalition programme might be for two more years, now that the big idea of Coalition Mark 2 has collapsed and spawned the rather muddled ‘audit’ of the Coalition Agreement known as the mid-term review. And in lulls at the end of the day, quiet corners in the pub and spare moments, Liberal Democrats and Tories ask serious questions about how it is all going to end – not so much about the number of seats that Liberal Democrats might salvage (but Peter Kellner may have cracked the mental block on thinking about such things) but the mechanics of the end game.
It seems to be accepted at the top of both parties that we must at some time start to campaign on different platforms – but when? The Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbench MPs, Graham Brady, called in July for the two parties to prepare their ‘exit strategy’ from the coalition. Could such a separation by mutual consent take place, say, some time in 2014, with the Tories continuing in office as a minority government until the election? Could there then be a general election early due to a sordid deal between the Tories and Labour to smash the Liberal Democrats?
Even if the parliament holds for five years, we take for granted that we will fight the next election as an ‘independent force’. But what does that mean? If our ministers still hold office to the bitter end, how can they reconcile the policy of the government with the different policy of the party, not least in the face of hostile questioning from the likes of Andrew Neil and Jeremy Paxman? How can a Liberal Democrat minister say one thing in the Commons and another on TV?
If a clear break and independent election campaign are required, how long do we need? Can the party successfully project different policies in the four weeks of the campaign? It seems unlikely. Conservatives will have the same problem but it may be easier for them. Many Liberal Democrats, being generally more decent people, will want to stress the positive things the party has achieved in government. The Tories will want to denounce Liberal Democrats for stopping proper Tory policies – and guess who will win that battle in the right-wing press.
So we will in turn need to attack the Tories. After all, they are the main opposition in four-fifths of Liberal Democrat seats and they hold most of the seats we might entertain hopes of gaining. The main battle for political survival in May 2015 is going to be against Conservatives, many of whom hold unpleasantly illiberal views that they will want to press in an aggressively anti-Liberal manner.
Thirty months is a long time. The rest of this year and this parliamentary session up to May 2013 is more or less laid out with legislation, though the collapse of Lords reform leaves more than a bit of slack. That leaves two more years. If 2013/14 looks like a fairly light year, mopping up stuff from the mid-term review, where does that leave 2014/15? It does seem a remarkably long time to plod on with such a sagging sense of purpose. The conference in September 2014 seems to be a critical moment, leaving eight months for campaigning. But can a lame duck parliament survive for that long?
If Lords reform was not a coalition breaker, would anything be? This leads to more important questions: do Liberal Democrats, facing potential electoral wipe-out, want to deliberately break the coalition on one or more big issues? Or will it just be a friendly handshake or goodbye peck on the cheek in the rose garden with the hope (or fear) of meeting again soon? If we want to engineer a major row – or even just a civilised agreement to differ and divorce – what issues are around? How can we foster (or prevent) adventitious issues deciding these things for us (Harold Macmillan’s “events, dear boy, events”)? An American attack on Syria?
But there are things that are known and cannot be avoided – the annual budgets and the next Comprehensive Spending Review. It is clear that the deficit reduction strategy is not working and, while the deficit itself is coming down slowly, the effect on the economy is disastrous. Another round of massive public spending cuts on top of what is planned – inevitably targeting the welfare budget and local services including the NHS – would not and should not be acceptable to this party.
So is this the coalition breaker? The obvious problem (apart from certain Liberal Democrat ministers who may agree with such disastrous policies) is that, unlike new legislation, budgets and spending reviews are things that have to happen. The government has to have policies and it has to take action to pursue those policies. At its most basic, it has to have ‘supply’ – the ability to raise the money it needs to spend.
There are general political problems with all this, whether the divorce is hostile or consensual. The Liberal Democrats in the Commons, newly free from the fetters of government, would still have to vote against or abstain on any Labour motion of no confidence in order to prevent an early general election. Doing this while maintaining an independent position, inevitably much more hostile to the Conservatives than now, would be awkward. The financial questions are much more difficult. If the separation occurred around the party conferences in September 2014, the only remaining budget would be that immediately preceding the general election, which could be split into immediate ‘supply’ to keep the country going and longer-term proposals that could be introduced after the election. The major spending review is more difficult, with big decisions inevitably put off until after the country has gone to the polls again. But, given the political problems for the Liberal Democrats in approving more big Tory spending cuts, that is, one hopes, going to be the position anyway.
There is, however, another big problem with Liberal Democrat ministers leaving their desks early. It will allow in a gang of Tories to take over jobs, which have been done for over four years by diligent people working hard to promote Liberal Democrat ideas and projects. There must be a high risk that these new Tories will relish blocking and dismantling many of these Liberal Democrat successes in government, some of them well known but most hidden away from all but the most perceptive observers. In some cases, the Tories might even want to take credit for them!
Yet what is the alternative? How can the party develop new (or even old) policies for the election, clearly different and inevitably more progressive than those of the Tories, and promote and campaign on them – while shackled to the coalition? How can ministers, slaves as they all are to the routine tasks and collective responsibility within government imposed on them by their civil servants, possibly change their role without leaving their posts? Yet the ministers will be by far the best known Liberal Democrats in the country, including indeed the party’s leaders, and the only ones with ready access to the media.
The party must get candidates in place, not least in target seats including those where MPs will not stand again. What are they to say and promote? Coalition policies or Liberal Democrat policies? What is very clear is that it cannot be coalition policies up to 5 April 2015 and very different Liberal Democrat policies on 6 April and the four weeks to follow.
And what is to be the party’s tactical positioning vis-à-vis the other political parties – at least (in England and elsewhere) in relation to the Tories and/or Labour? Coalition partners? Equidistance? Let’s suck it and see how the votes come in? Don’t worry because we won’t be around anyway? This is not something that can be worked out or explained to voters in the space of a month.
I have not discussed Nick Clegg here. There is no doubt that our leader is at present, as they say amongst the chattering classes, politically ‘toxic’. Rightly or wrongly – I think wrongly and unfairly – a huge number of people won’t listen to anything he says because they think his word cannot be trusted. Can this be turned around? I don’t know, I don’t know how to do it and I wish him the very best of luck in doing it.
What I do know is that Nick Clegg’s future is not, at the moment, the most important question facing the party. A leadership challenge in present circumstances would be politically disastrous. There would be open warfare in the party and our polling figures would be down in quite low single figures – and the use of constitutional procedures in the party would inevitably result in a victory for Clegg. If the survival of this party does indeed depend on having a new leader, the time for change is not now. If our polling has crept up to averaging 15-16% by the autumn of 2014, the world might look very different. But if it has to happen, the decision will have to be taken by Clegg himself.
There are other urgent questions. How to recreate the campaigning verve among Liberal Democrats – I mean campaigning, not just fighting elections. How to survive the local elections in 2013 and 2014? How to create a competent publicity operation for the party, with political and campaigning competence not just technical whizzery? How to bring in people in the top echelons of the party with some understanding of these matters rather than the clever but clueless brigade too often employed as advisers.
But the fundamental strategic and tactical issues around the coalition underpin everything. I hope the Brighton conference will insist on discussing these questions rather than the sexy but destructive issues around the leadership that the media will insist on writing about, because they are the ones that will decide whether this party has a future, in or out of government. And because, at the moment, we don’t know the answers to them.
Tony Greaves is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords
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