The Coalition Headed for Political Divorce?

1st October 2014

As the sun radiated down on the Downing Street garden on the 12th May 2010 a new political partnership was announced to the world in a flurry of media excitement. As with many marriages the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats entered office excited and enthused, believing their partnership would be like no other. As this was the first coalition government since WW2, in many respects the latter proved true. Back then all thoughts turned to how this new look government would function. How can two parties who weeks before had launched attack after attack at the other suddenly join together in political matrimony? What happens when the inevitable policy disputes arise? Have we witnessed the end of one party government? One question which stood out at the time was how and, more pertinently, when does it end? A question we still have no answer for.

Recently the distance has grown between the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat governing partners with increasingly fiery rhetoric. As an example, Home Secretary Theresa May accused the Liberal Democrat leader of endangering children through his opposition to the Communications Data Bill. Clegg retorted, saying May was “playing party politics with national security”. Meanwhile the Conservatives have criticised their governing partners for failing to give the British people a say on EU membership. It is easily forgotten with all these points of contention emerging that the media once devoted endless column inches on the Cameron-Clegg similarities. Former Conservative PM Sir John Major even called for a Liberal-Conservative alliance going into the 2015 election, an idea which now seems as unlikely as a Nigel Farage premiership. So frequent were musings of a permanent Lib-Con alliance that the Liberal Democrat spring conference of 2012 passed a motion ruling it out

Of course much of this growing difference is expected with an election looming on the horizon. Both governing parties are likely to campaign on their record in government, especially as the economy continues to improve. Both will be scrambling for every morsel of credit for government successes, whilst passing on blame for government shortcomings. We must look back to 1945 for the last time multiple parties went into an election with the same governing record and that was after the nation had fought an exhaustive war. Back then Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberals made their visions for the nation the electoral battleground, rather than their governing records. It is reasonable to expect the Tories and Lib Dems to adopt a similar approach, with differences over mansion tax, welfare reforms and the EU already emerging.

It is easy to forget amidst all the political sniping and point scoring of the recent conference season that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are still in coalition. The differences between them may have yawned open in recent months but there is little to suggest divorce is imminent. Like many an ill-fated relationship they know that the end will come, although most couples don’t have a final cut off written in stone (or law) like these two do. To the disappointment of many a right wing Tory and left wing Lib Dem it appears this political marriage still has a few more months on the clock.