Rumours always come connected to a catch-22. That is: say nothing, and speculation spreads; say something, and you admit the existence of the very problem you seek to dismiss. So it is with efforts exerted by Messrs Cameron and Clegg – who this week made a joint appearance at a railway depot in the West Midlands – to brush aside growing rumours of the Coalition’s early demise – giving weight to the rumours themselves.
But cracks there are – big ones; each week it seems like the paper-thin-plaster is becoming more and more transparent. The Prime Minister failed to come good on his promise to his deputy that he would deliver plans to reform the House of Lords. The Conservative leader was instead forced to watch the embarrassing spectacle of 91 of his MPs defy the party line on the issue and rebel.
Only, on this issue, the junior partners of the Coalition have a serious card they play in return. Up on the policy-making horizon are plans to review MPs’ constituency boundaries and reduce the size of the House of Commons. If realised, these plans could give the Tories another dozen or so seats. (As the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley rightly points out: that the Conservatives have their hearts set of securing this small number of seats speaks volumes about their own prospects at the next election.) It is now widely reported that if Cameron fails to delivery House of Lords reform for Clegg, Clegg will see to it that his party kills off the boundary review. “All Lib Dems”, Rawnsley predicts, “ministers included, will vote against the changes.” This is not just another reporter’s rumour; senior Lib Dem figures like David Laws, Sir Menzies Campbell and Lynne Featherstone have hinted at a similar threat.
If this happens, Rawnsley says, some Conservatives predict “the anger among Tories will be so intense that it will be the death knell of this government”. Just this week, Graham Brady, chairman of the prolific 1922 Committee announced that the Coalition partners should have “a moment of separation”, well before the next election, so as to carve out a distinctive identity. There has been much talk of late in the right-wing press that this moment of separation should come sooner rather than later. On the influential Conservative Home blog, Andrew Lilico declares himself to be “almost certain” that at some point in during 2014 the Liberal Democrats could withdraw and grant the Tories a minority government.
The Liberal Democrats are all but dead. They now poll in single digits, often neck-to-neck with the UK Independence Party. Almost three in four members of the public say that Nick Clegg is doing badly. Whatever you think about the cuts, tuition fees or the environment, the Lib Dems have actually already achieved a lot of what Nick Clegg desperately wanted to do: show that they can be a party responsible and mature in Government. On this, they have done well. They have been disciplined to the point of suicide in putting aside their own desires and voting through coalition policies on welfare, healthcare and immigration. And the Lib Dem backbenchers, unlike some of their Conservative counterparts, have refrained from openly criticising the Coalition.
There are real parallels between the liberal conservative Cameron claimed to be, and the Orange Book strand of liberalism that Clegg champions. Nonetheless, he must have known that going into bed with the Tories would result in people leaving the Lib Demos in droves. And it did. But it could well be the case that although Clegg wanted to show people the Lib Dems could be a party of government, he never expected to govern again. Instead, he put all his money on delivering two major changes to our democracy and leave, in his wake, a long-lasting Lib Dem legacy. These are: introducing the Alternative Vote to Britain and reforming its upper chamber of unelected peers and bishops. Having already failed to deliver the first, it now looks very likely that he will fail to deliver the second. All the while the Tories boast that they have now implemented around 80 per cent of their manifesto.
Having failed to deliver this legacy, there is little that Clegg can give his party to reassure them that their time in Government has been worth it. “We made Tory reforms less bad” is not exactly a message to fire and fuel public appetite when it comes to knock on doorsteps in 2015. In the next election it is highly unlikely the Liberal Democrats will form yet another coalition with the Conservatives and show the world they are just an add-on to the Tory machine.
But they could begin to set out their own agenda in the hope of another Coalition – only this time with Labour, who are consistently leading the polls and, for the first time in two years, shown to be considered by the public as the most competent political party. This would first require some serious efforts to detoxify currently poisonous relations between the two parties.
Having set out an incredibly radical programme of reform – to education, welfare, healthcare – the Government is now in its implementation phase; most of its big ideas have already been declared. But the Government is still failing to fully achieve its biggest goal of all: reducing the deficit, cutting borrowing and the public debt. Debt has increased from £1 trillion to £1.4. The Office for Budget Responsibility says another £17 billion worth of cuts are needed by 2017. The age of austerity has only just begun and the lights have dimmed on any hopes of a long-lasting liberal legacy.
Perhaps it’s time to leave, Nick.