Over the past month, we’ve been getting more and more hints as to just how fragile and precarious the ConDem coalition actually is. The public story is that the shotgun wedding will stand the test of time, but the reality is that a quickie divorce may be on the agenda sooner than most people think. When you build a pack of cards on top of a sand dune, after all, the slightest of chill autumnal winds presages disaster.
Vince Cable has been identified by the press as a weak link in the government, particularly following his public denunciation of the ConDem anti-business immigration policies. Speaking at the Königswinter 60th anniversary conference, the Business Secretary claimed to be at the ‘limit of collective responsibility’ over a cap on new migrants which he described as ‘doing great damage’.
Poor old Vince, eh? Only a few months in bed with his Tory mates and he’s already been pushed to the limit. I suspect the Twickenham MP suffers more cognitive dissonance than most of his colleagues, as he’s actually bright enough to realise that the coalition’s policies are likely to destroy, over the next year to eighteen months, the fragile economic recovery that has so far been achieved. If he and Charlie Kennedy jumped ship, it would certainly rattle Clegg and Cameron and create a ripple effect in the Lib Dem grassroots. I’m not sure, however, that it would be a killer blow. Dr Cable’s credibility is shot to pieces and he would end up being distrusted by both the ConDem apologists and their opponents.
My hunch is that the real threat to the coalition comes from the Tory backbenches. Many Conservative MPs never liked the idea of shacking up with the Liberals in the first place and have been biting their tongues. Some, however, have started biting back instead.
Take Dr Julian Lewis, for instance. The MP for New Forest East, who led an anti-CND pressure group in the 1980s called The Coalition for Peace Through Security, was outraged to hear this week that the ConDems were considering delaying a decision on the replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent.
In an angry speech in the House of Commons, Lewis claimed that such a move would ‘be a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative party gave to the electorate and a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative party leader gave to Conservative MPs when seeking their support, which we gave, to the formation of the coalition’. In other words, he feels he’s been stitched up. He never liked the idea of the coalition, but felt that if the Lib Dems were locked into a right-wing policy agenda, then it might be possible to grin and bear it. Now, everything’s starting to unravel. Lewis made clear that no Tory MPs who shared his views were going to perform ‘back-somersaults’ on Trident. He even said he’d be ‘amazed’ if Defence Secretary Liam Fox stayed in post were a decision to be taken to postpone a commitment to the Trident replacement.
We begin to see the fault lines open up, don’t we? Immigration and defence were always two areas where it was difficult to see any common ground between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. But there are many other problematic policy issues. Crime, for example. Europe. Next year’s referendum on a new voting system. And that’s before we even start to think about the draconian cuts being imposed on public services.
All of this tension creates a great opportunity for the next Labour leader. If the Party does the sensible thing and elects David Miliband (and my feeling is that he will just sneak through, despite the strong challenge of his younger brother), then it’s time to go for the jugular. Labour is now virtually level-pegging with the Tories in the polls and should be prepared to go on the attack. The alternative, cautious approach would be to chip away at the ConDem government and wait for the full effect of the cuts to become evident to the electorate between now and 2015. Such a strategy, however, would be a disgraceful abdication of political responsibility and a betrayal of the ordinary working families who are going to be hit so hard by the decimation of public services.
There is actually an opportunity to divide and humiliate the coalition so badly that it falls apart over the next year, forcing another election. At this point, rather than people voting on the vague, hypothetical cuts programmes that dominated the debates earlier this year, they would have the opportunity to weigh up real facts and figures. If the electorate opted for the Tory austerity measures having seen the reality of what they meant, so be it. It would give a democratic mandate for the cuts programme which simply doesn’t exist at the moment. But I have no doubt it’s an election that Labour would, in fact, have every chance of winning.
One thing’s for certain. The Lib Dems would be scared witless by another election. They have slumped in the polls, with 40% of the people who voted for them in this year’s general election now telling researchers they regret their decision. Only a freak result would allow the Liberals to retain the balance of power that they hold right now.
We have become rather used to Nick Clegg through his ‘holding the fort’ for David Cameron while the Prime Minister holidayed, became a father and suffered a bereavement. Clegg’s a man who could, however, fade into obscurity just as quickly as he achieved his undeserved, overnight promotion.