Thursday, 13 May 2010

A coalition with potential

I am surprised that the Conservatives managed to agree a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but it is an interesting development, and in its form is one that shows considerable political generosity by the Conservatives towards the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives may benefit from this indirectly, beyond just being able to take power for the moment, by making the party more used to occupying the centre ground and by neutralising, for a while, the more swivel-eyed at the far right of the party. As a person in the centre of the party leaning towards, but not yet at one with, the one-nation Tories, David Cameron's talk of this being an opportunity as well as a challenge is probably something he actually feels as well as being a good sound bite. A dose of realism might well be good for the Tories, and in due course become a habit.

The Labour party's attack strategy is already becoming clear, and is a retreat to type: that this government is a government of cuts. If the coalition play their cards right, they may well be able to defeat this one. Gordon Brown was at his most unpopular and most derided when he was pushing his "Tories' 10% cuts" line, when everyone knew that a Labour government would have to do the same and cuts were inevitable. The coalition response needs to be in kind, namely that it is the same old dishonesty. If they play their cards correctly (and they may not), Cameron may be right that the coalition can bring a good portion of the electorate with them on cuts. Their stock response to a Labour attack of this kind should not be a quibble about numbers (nor even the ineffective Steve Hilton nicey-nicey big society stuff), but should work at the level of sentiment with one word: dishonest.

All this of course depends on the coalition surviving more than 12 months. It might or might not. But this is certainly a bold move by David Cameron. It seems that he lacks neither political instinct nor the decisiveness to lead the way and follow his instinct.

The coalition document

Two things of interest were in the coalition document. First, the proposal to require any vote of no confidence to have a 55% majority against the government looks like the same-old same-old political cynicism and seems very ill-advised. Its purpose is presumably to allow the government to continue even with a Liberal Democrat defection, as a minority government, but it simply won't work, and I am amazed the Conservatives had the balls to suggest it and the Liberal Democrats the lack of wisdom to agree it. To be effective it would require any Finance Act and Appropriation Act to be capable of being passed with a 45% vote, which would be outrageous. Update: it transpires that this is a misreading of the intentions of the coalition document: see this for further explanation.

Secondly, also of interest was the agreement, presumably at Liberal Democrats' insistence, that the West Lothian question should be put to a commission rather than implementing Ken Clarke's Democracy Taskforce proposal for an English Grand Committee.

Putting things to commissions is of course the standard way of kicking things to the long grass. In the 1970s we had the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution of the United Kingdom, which enumerated the arguments against an English Parliament and/or restricted voting at Westminster and/or regional bodies with legislative powers within England (the majority report recommended instead pseudo-devolution within England along the lines of the hopeless John Prescott proposals). As Ken Clarke is the new Justice Secretary and will therefore presumably be in charge of this project, it will be for him to move it along should he feel the urge to do so, and maybe his appointment to the office of Justice Secretary is an indication that he proposes to do so.

What we need though is a commission which looks for solutions and not for problems. In particular it needs to eschew the straw-man approach of those who advocate the "do-nothing" option, which I touch on here. I do not think "do-nothing" is going to work for a great deal longer.

Even better would be a commission which actually listens to what people in England would like, which is surely going to have to happen at some stage, or would that be too much like open government for the taste of this coalition? Probably, it would: the coalition is a bold step in government, but it will probably not turn out to be the start of a new kind of politics as claimed for it. However, let's keep hoping.

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