Lembit Öpik, former Lib Dem MP and co-author of the seminal book on the Lib Dems – ‘The Alternative View’ - reviews David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s self assessment of the performance of the coalition, and their plans for the future. He suggests that the economy remains the coalition’s weakest link and that without an ‘exit strategy’ the Lib Dems in particular are heading for a political catastrophe at the next election.
In 2010, two parties made history by forming the first UK Government peacetime coalition in British political history. Back then, party leaders Nick Clegg and David Cameron claimed this was primarily to serve the national interest by getting the economy and national debt sorted out. I - and many others - went along with this compelling case, even though I’ve always been suspicious of Tory Governments. Subsequently, the Chancellor has repeatedly underlined that this Government is to be judged on its economic performance above anything else.
Two years later, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister decided to repeat their ‘marriage vows.’ Cameron began his statement, on the grey afternoon of 7th January 2013, reiterating exactly this same point. He made a ‘serious five year commitment,’ and that at its heart the hour of reckoning was here for ‘countries like ours.’ He said we need to fix the nation’s finances and back the aspirations of hard working families and businesses who want to do the right thing. We were then treated to a list of achievements relating to a reduction in the deficit, more private new jobs, improved exports to
India, Brazil and and improvements in the NHS
budget in real terms. He also said there
was an end to ‘chronic short termism.’
We heard about high hopes for our railways and stronger regulation of
However, when it came to the economy, there were excuses. There had been ‘difficulties along the way. With public finances as broken as ours I think that was inevitable.’ The promises about childcare and mortgages were vague. For pensioners no pernicious means testing was promised - but little more.
Then it was Clegg’s turn. He spent a great deal of his speech repeating his commitment to a shared purpose ‘for a stronger economy’ and to work across party lines – and ‘the need to act boldly.’ ‘It is a source of immense pride to me that we have put party differences aside.’ Pupil premium and a higher tax thresholds for the poorest earners were cited as particular wins. The nearest there was to an acknowledgement of errors was that he had ‘learned a lot’ and that the damage done to
worse than anyone predicted at the time.’ UK
Crucially, in response to press questioning, Cameron said he was absolutely committed to a five year plan for a five year Government. Nick Clegg added that the evidence for this was that they’d legislated for fixed term parliaments – ‘what more evidence do you need?’
So how did they do? In my judgement, the two men performed competently, but the
will not be dancing in the streets thanks to these statements. For a start, people are more influnced by
what they see around them rather than by what they’re told by party leaders. And the public don’t feel things are getting
better – in fact, quite the opposite.
Perhaps this is the cost of ‘long termism -’ but I predict there will be
no lift in Tory or Lib Dem electoral fortunes in the weeks ahead as a result of
the joint statement. United Kingdom
Secondly, there is a great weakness in the coalition’s delivery on the economy versus its promises. Whatever is said now, there was an unconditional commitment to be judged on the economy, and there is a very good chance that, just now, we’re in – or close to - a triple dip recession. That’s terrible news for the credibility of the coalition, regardless of whether or not the Labour Party could have done better.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the absolute commitment to a full five year coalition Government was contradicted within the press conference itself. The contradiction was subtle - but clearly there. In response to a press question about boundary changes, Nick Clegg commented ‘if one part of the deal isn’t met then we’re going to tweak the package as a whole.’ Bang! Game over! Clegg was saying he has the right to walk away from parts of the deal if Tories don’t play ball. You don’t have to be a political genius to see that if there’s any possibility of this - then there’s also a possibility that a ‘deal breaker’ will come along – or be deliberately orchestrated for political gain. It cannot be the case that one is possible but not the other. And so we have our answer. The coalition can indeed be brought down early – and as I’ve explained in my book on the subject (‘The Alternative View’) the fixed term legislation does not prevent an early election if certain conditions are met. I predict that the coalition will be made to fall, probably by a proposal created by the Tories which is so objectionable to Lib Dems that they walk away – to be subsequently accused of being ‘splitters.’ Then Cameron backfills all the vacated Lib Dem ministerial positions with his own Tories - and governs alone to prove he can do it, as the Lib Dems stand condemned of walking away from ‘the national interest.’
And what of Clegg? Despite all the evidence that he ought to stand down from the leadership of the Lib Dems, he carries on clinging to it – even though it is the opinion of this commentator that this helps the Conservatives and Labour, while materially harming the fortunes of the party Clegg’s supposed to be serving. However, I hazard a guess that Clegg’s plan is to resign when the coalition collapses, perhaps around Summer 2014 after the European Elections. These will probably be won by UKIP and ‘lost’ by Lib Dems, who will suffer heavy losses at that time. Clegg can then use this as an excuse to leave, though in all probability he won’t be permitted to stay anyway – assuming he has even made it that far.
Finally, I believe we now have an indication of the longest time Clegg himself intends us to believe he’ll be there. In answer to another question – and this is a point missed by all other observers – Clegg said the coalition has admitted that balancing the economic books is going to take longer than originally planned. Then he added: ‘the next government will need to complete job that we’ve initiated.’ Those don’t sound to me like the words of a man who expects to be in the next government. If I’m wrong, I invite Mr Clegg to put me right…