While Conservative MPs and most right-leaning commentators continue to shriek loudly about dastardly betrayal by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, the rest of the world has moved on and decided that it is the Tories who are the coalition cheaters in this particular relationship. Quoting a recent YouGov poll, The Spectator reports:
Here’s an interesting statistic from YouGov: more voters think the Conservatives have broken the coalition agreement than think the Lib Dems have failed to stick to it. When asked whether the Tories have ‘mostly kept to their side of the deal they made in the coalition agreement’, 51 per cent said no. For the Lib Dems, 45 per cent of voters thought the Lib Dems had stuck to the coalition agreement against 32 per cent who thought they had not.
So 51% of voters think that the Conservatives have failed to uphold the coalition agreement, while only 32% of voters think the same of the Liberal Democrats.
The ludicrous position in which the Conservative Party now finds itself is entirely due to political blundering by their leadership, and blinkered stubbornness from their grass roots. The Liberal Democrats have, in general, taken far more of a political kicking over the past few years than the Conservatives as a result of their mutual decision to go into coalition government together – look no further than the tuition fee increase furore as a prime example. If, as some commentators say, electoral constituency boundary reform is the most important thing to the Conservatives as they seek to win a straight majority at the next general election in 2015, perhaps they should have read the tea leaves better and realised that thwarting a cause dear to the hearts of their coalition partners might bring about a reprisal that would damage a cause dear to their own.
To clarify my own position: I am no fan of modifying the voting system in this country, and certainly no fan of AV. I’m glad that the referendum yielded a resounding “no” vote. I am, however, very much a fan of having the upper house of Parliament finally becoming a democratically legitimate body, one with equal status to the Commons and thus ending their primacy if possible (though the current bill would not do this).
It is all very well talking about principle and the fact that ministers are expected to support the government in Parliamentary votes. But we are living in interesting times and uncharted political territory. We have a government that no-one elected, comprised of two parties with (at times) very divergent views. The “glue” that holds this together, and the only thing stopping the Conservatives from having to form a lame-duck minority administration or calling a new election, is the threat of political reprisal by one party when the other strays. You squash my policy proposal, I’ll scupper yours. Is it pretty, and is it ideal? No, of course not. Coalition government is not ideal in any way. But successive governments, in their laziness, have failed to put in place a better mechanism for dealing with a hung Parliament, so this is what we are stuck with.
We conservatives screwed our Lib Dem coalition partners on House of Lords reform, and now they have hit us back. We tried calling the waambulance and demanding the sympathy of the British electorate for the terrible things that the naughty Lib Dems did to us, and by a margin of 51%-32% they told us to quit crying and grow up. By and large, no one outside the Westminster village cares about process. They care about outcomes. Referring to a sub-clause in the coalition agreement with outraged, wounded indignity will not win us any more supporters.
So there are two choices now, as far as I can tell:
1. Yet another embarrassing, totally avoidable political U-turn. David Cameron gets tough with his backbenchers and whips them into line to pass the House of Lords reform bill, or
2. Cameron accepts the Liberal Democrat retaliation, waves goodbye to boundary reform and possibly the only chance of winning an outright majority at the next general election.
It’s not complicated.