A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

So now our new masters have managed the *impossible*. Now it is time for them to *manage* the impossible.

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight on May 15, 2010 at 4:06 pm

David Weber

…Not the most pithy of titles, perhaps, but it sums up my feelings. I never did seriously believe that the outcome of the election would be a coalition between the Liberals and the Conservatives, although I did view it as a far more likely scenario than a coalition between the Liberals and Labour. I grin did momentarily play on my face today, though, as I remembered the incredulous reaction I suffered when, two years ago, at the height of the ten pence tax row, I declared that a Liberal-Conservative coalition was now a more realistic probability than a Liberal-Labour one. Not once did I seriously believe it, though.

The fact that it has become a reality can be mainly attributed to something I never expected; Cameron’s commitment to finding a majority. My expectation was that Cameron, in line with the tone of the Conservative campaign, would be bold and attempt to go it alone, winning votes on a case-by-case basis as the SNP in Scotland have done, perhaps with a supply and confidence deal with the Lib Dems. The Tory campaign seemed to back this assumption up; to the end combative and as sure of the Liberals’ wrongness as it was its own rightness, it made ideas of a coalition seem far away.

In retrospect, a large part of this was perhaps due to fright at the Lib Dems’ performance at the leaders’ debates, and worries that an election in which they came second might lead to a Labour-Liberal majority, or even a Labour plurality. But the attitude of the Conservatives in opposition was troublesome for considered, collective decision-making even before this; the party has behaved infamously in the practice of making up policy “on the hop”. Though the Lib Dems are not innocent of this, it at least tended to provoke reactions from their grassroots, whereas idiotic commitments from the Conservatives such as cutting the number of MPs and a 4 year mandatory sentence for knife criminals went largely unnoticed or uncared about. Only the imposition of female candidates sparked anger from the grassroots, which speaks of perhaps skewed priorities.

So the commitment with which Cameron pushed for this coalition speaks volumes to his credit, particularly after a 4 year opposition strategy undermined his reputation with those like me who feel policy and government should be matters of caution as well as boldness. The Conservatives’ continual press releases with instant policy recommendation, as impotent as they were frequent, was a matter of serious irritation to me, as was the Osborne “pulling a tax rabbit out of the hat” act at Conservative party conferences, even if I realised that this was more politically necessary. Cameron’s first bold act of government, using the coalition as an excuse to ditch many, if not most of the politically expedient but unwise policies out of his manifesto, is a work of political genius, far more meaningful and improving than Tony Blair’s “clause four moment” ever was.

The second person to congratulate is Clegg. Equidistance has paid off volumes, as the approach now allows him to sell a Con-Lib deal as legitimate to his party and indeed his voters, where it would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago. The Liberal Democrats are no longer seen as an alternative left fringe party, but as a very serious party of political reality. Clegg has also played the hung parliament well, managing to secure a truly joint policy agreement, even if he did edge dangerously close to the line of using Brown’s predicament unkindly towards the end. Still, he can hardly be blamed for attempting to maximise his party’s advantage in negotiations.

The joint policy deal, which I have skimmed, effectively removes the least important and most unwise parts of each party’s manifestos. Gone is the IHT cut, in return for the mansion tax plan biting the dust. The Liberal Democrat’s income tax proposals are being gradually implemented, presumably in return for their agreement not to kick up a stink over a married tax allowance. An immigration cap will be adopted, an acceptable (and likely self-defeating) price to pay for the ending of the shocking detention of children for immigration purposes.

This is real progressive politics. Not the constant glancing over the shoulder at the tabloids when even the smallest redistributive measure is considered, but the hard-nosed negotiation for full-blooded reforms in specific areas. And the beauty of coalition is that, in the next election, both side can spread the blame around and allocate each others a more generous share in the credit than they really deserve. Risk is pooled.

Of course, it could always go badly wrong. And this is where my header comes in. In coming to this agreement, strong though it is initially, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have only managed to do what was thought impossible. But now they have to manage, continually, to do the even harder business of hammering out the details in government. The process of continual negotiation, as it were, will be difficult, despite the comprehensive policy agreement. The latter is, in effect, political theory, whereas the former is political reality. And will prove far more difficult.

As such, their early efforts to make this coalition stable should be applauded, not sneered at. And the now controversial idea of a 55% threshold for dissolution should be counted as such. Contrary to what some people believe, it is not to protect the Liberal Democrats from the Tories! The Tories could not muster dissolution alone – they have 47% of the seats, and would need backing from Labour, Nationalist or Liberal Democrat MPs. The whole point is to protect the Tories from the Liberal Democrats, who with only a 50%+1 threshold for dissolution could easily break away and form a pact with the opposition at a time which looked politically expedient. Though they might be punished at the ballot box for doing such a thing, this is no guarantee.

What protects the Liberal Democrats is the historic transfer of the dissolution power, in the first place, away from the Prime Minister. And this is very important. It is a far bigger transfer of power back to Parliament than the super-threshold is a constraint of its powers. And as the architects of this policy point out, dissolution is not the same as confidence. The House of Commons could theoretically vote for a change of government mid-term, but not dissolution.

There is one danger in the legislation – that the House of Commons would be able to do the unthinkable, IE force a Prime Ministerial resignation but to refuse to put forward an alternative candidate. In this case, there could theoretically – very theoretically – be the risk of a government shutdown, similar to that of Bill Clinton’s administration in 1995. This must be avoided, and could easily be done so by the insertion of a safety clause to provide for emergency elections in the event of such a situation developing. The emergency elections could only hold valid for the remainder of the previous parliamentary term, thus creating an incentive against any party seeking to engineer one.

The only issue with 55% is that it is too low. It means that the Coalition as a whole can effectively vote for an early election if it believes it will do well. In reality, to have proper fixed-term parliaments, the threshold needs to be higher, as it is in the Scottish Parliament. So far from this being undemocratic, it actually safeguards the right of the House of Parliament to be superior to government – the representative body standing tall over the practical, but unrepresentative one.

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