If you’d asked me a month ago how long the ConDem coalition would survive in government, I’d reluctantly have conceded maybe two or three years. Both David Cameron and his partner in crime – the puffed-up popinjay Nick Clegg – have invested all their personal credibility in this bizarre political project. They therefore can’t afford for it to fail and will both do their upmost to ensure its survival. The problem is that the government’s pronouncements are becoming more extraordinary by the day and the contradictions inherent within the coalition are causing strains even in this honeymoon period. My hunch, therefore, is that it will end in tears rather sooner than I’d first imagined. A quickie divorce after a year or eighteen months perhaps.
The issue of criminal justice creates one of their biggest pickles. Ken Clarke, that ‘wet’ Europhile relic from a bygone era, has found himself in charge of prisons and he seems to have decided unilaterally that the slammer doesn’t work. This will please his Lib Dem coalition partners no end, as they have form as long as your arm when it comes to making the penal system less frightening to its prospective customers. Out in the Tory heartland, however, loyal supporters are fuming. They already think that a spell of bird is like taking a trip to Butlins. Now, the Redcoats are escorting their happy campers back home. The Daily Mail, which serves as a Delphic oracle to the Conservatives’ aged membership in the shires, actually resorted to asking the former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw to lambast the Clarke for his muddled thinking. Now, that’s what we might call a serious turn up for the books.
In itself, letting some criminals out of the Scrubs slightly earlier wouldn’t lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. But Theresa May, the current Home Secretary, was very recently announcing drastic cuts to police budgets, so anyone who comes out of prison and wants to reoffend will just love the new-look ConDem Britain.
Immigration is another tricky area. Nick Clegg went into the presidential election debates advocating an amnesty for people who were in the country illegally. This intellectually plausible but politically suicidal policy was probably one of the big reasons that his vote dipped significantly in the final stages of the campaign. Now the plan has been dumped in favour of the Tories’ politically plausible but intellectually nonsensical policy of ‘caps’ on the number of immigrants from outside the EU.
The business community within the Tory Party is twitchy as it knows that free movement of labour is essential in a modern capitalist society. We rely on semi-skilled people to do the jobs that British folk are unwilling to do and we depend on highly skilled specialists to maintain our world standards in a number of fields. Out in the constituencies, however, many Tory MPs need to take a tough stance on immigration to assuage public opinion. It’s an impossible balancing act for the Tories at the best of times, but as part of a coalition, it’s doubly problematic.
Things are made all the more ridiculous by the fact that a large proportion of immigration is completely unstoppable because it comes from within the European Union. Short of tearing up the European treaties we’ve signed – or waiting for the complete implosion of the community – we’ll be accepting visitors for ever more. I expect there a quite a few people thinking of heading here from Greece, for instance, right now.
So crime is a muddle and migration is a real headache. It’s time to throw another grenade into the coalition camp – one that’s labelled electoral reform. A referendum next year will see David Cameron in direct confrontation with his Lib Dem buddies as he argues against any change to the current system. The alternative vote, a pretty innocuous and not particularly proportional way of electing MPs, is too radical for the Tory champion of the ‘Big Society’. Unfortunately, it’s not radical enough for thousands of Lib Dem activists, who believe in a geek’s system called Single Transferable Vote, which involves constituencies with multiple MPs and requires the use of equations during the count. These Lib Dems will realise exactly what a hollow concession they have been handed by the Conservatives when their Coalition buddies join forces with reactionary elements of the Labour Party to oppose any change. If you were a pro-reform Lib Dem, why would you even bother to lift a finger in a campaign for a half-baked solution, when it looks extremely likely the cards are stacked against you?
All of this is seems very bad for Nick and Dave. But we haven’t even addressed the central question facing us all: the deficit and the proposed ConDem cuts. Up until now, the Lib Dem lapdogs have quite happily done a lot of the Conservatives’ dirty work for them. They are certainly in the whole sorry mess up to their necks. So when their Tory masters start demanding plans for 40% cuts from various government departments – a policy described by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s Chief Economist as an ‘armageddon scenario’ – they can no more extract themselves from the madness than a dummy can remove itself from the hand of its ventriloquist.
Many Lib Dem MPs are sick to their stomachs, but they have made their political bed and they will have to lie in it. Eventually, we can be sure that they will die in it too. Over the course of the next six months the full scale of the cuts will become apparent and the popularity of the ConDem government partners will start to slide. As the cuts actually begin to bite, people start to lose their jobs and the faltering economy begins to splutter to a halt once again, there will be a full-blown panic. Cameron and Osborne will no doubt cling to the dubious figures of the Office for Budget Responsibility, which apparently believes that the private sector will create more jobs over the next few years of austerity than it did in the last boom. This economic gobbledegook will soon be exposed for what it is and there won’t be many places to hide. Open splits will emerge within the Lib Dems and even some stalwarts of the Tory heartlands may decide that they have their doubts. Particularly if their pensions and benefits are eroded and their businesses choked by the recessionary impact of the cuts.
The senior economics commentator of The Observer, William Keegan, has described the policies being pursued by the Tories as “Margaret Thatcher’s Economic Experiment Part Two”. He is absolutely right. But as Karl Marx famously observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire, the great events of history do have a habit of occurring twice. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.