It was like a crazy dream, a comic fantasy. Nick and Dave hugging on the doorstep of Number Ten. Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the UK. As the day wore on my fingers were numb from pinching myself. There they stood among the foliage of the Downing St rose garden, joking away, like Ant and Dec in a trailer for I’m a Liberal Democrat Get Me Out Of Here. Except the Cleggies aren’t going to be allowed to get out of this game because they’ve agreed to a mandatory, five year, non-returnable term of office. And it’s no secret who’ll be eating the bugs in the bush-tucker trials.
It was all wildly improbable, but Clegg and Cameron seemed to carry it off. The nation’s press suspended disbelief just long enough to listen to their joint message about the new politics. About giving power back to the people, about going green, helping the disadvantaged and revoking all those nasty Labour offences against civil liberties like ID cards and snooping wheelie bins. The Westminster hacks were puzzled, though, by the mechanics of coalition governance. Who’ll control the spin-doctors? Who ‘ll control the civil service? What happens when there’s a by-election and the two parties have to start fighting each other? Who takes questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time? If the phone calls at three am, who’ll answer it?
Never has the Westminster village seemed so parochial. These issues of coalition protocol were mostly resolved ten years ago during the first Holyrood coalition. The new politics has just filtered south. Coalition only looks strange because no one in Westminster looks beyond College Green. The Libdems also work with Tories and others in big councils like Birmingham. One suspects that the Liberal Democrats played a blinder in the negotiations with the Tories largely because they’ve had long experience of doing coalition deals in Scotland.
And there’s no doubt that Nick and co did play a blinder in those five hectic, sweaty, adrenaline-soaked days following the general election. It was a poor election result for the Libdems, who actually lost seats, but they still got an amazing result from the Conservatives: five cabinet posts, the deputy prime ministership, a referendum on electoral reform, ten thousand pound tax threshold, banking reform, fixed term parliaments, an elected House of Lords, freedom to abstain on nuclear issues and marriage tax breaks. You wonder where the Tory manifesto went. Green investment bank, Tobin tax on financial transactions, pupil premium, more powers for Holyrood. It was a real deal, which could change British politics for good. Unfortunately, it came from the Tories.
This will almost certainly split the Liberal Democrats. When the Cleggies find themselves having to defend the deficit reduction programme and savage cuts to public spending to their party conference there will be blood. Some Libdems think it’s not so much a coalition as a suicide pact, in which they have to shoot themselves first. But knowing the risks, Nick Clegg still grabbed the Tory offer on Tuesday after he’d satisfied himself that Labour wasn’t serious about any “progressive alliance”. Now, Labour insist it was the Libdems, not they, who sold out the rainbow coalition; that the “personal chemistry” between Clegg and Cameron was down to the Liberal Democrat leader being a natural Tory who always wanted to do a deal with his public school chum. Certainly, Nick Clegg had great difficulties relating to Gordon Brown, whom he regarded as a political neanderthal. But it was Labour’s manifest lack of enthusiasm for a coalition that unsealed the deal even before the negotiations got underway. The succession of senior Labour figures like John Reid, David Blunkett who went on TV saying that any “coalition of losers” would be undemocratic and unstable and would – shock horror – involve talking to nationalists and other political vermin. It wasn’t the numbers that was the problem – all the parties were losers in this election. No, it was visceral hatred of Alex Salmond all Liberal Democrats that scuppered the great broad left realignment. Tribalism is alive and well in the Labour Party.
Also, Labour had clearly lost the will to govern. Tired and emotional, the thought of going to all the effort of cobbling together a multinational coalition was just too much. Never has a government seemed to happy to lose office. Gordon Brown practically skipped out of Downing Street, wreathed in smiles, no doubt thinking about the booby traps he’s left concealed in the cabinet in-tray. David Cameron, by contrast, almost stumbled into Number Ten, with no grand phrases or air of destiny. Compared with Margaret Thatcher, with her quotes from St Thomas Aquinas, Cameron looked like an estate agent who’d come to look the property over and give a valuation once he’d inspected the loft.
As the furniture vans arrived to take away the football posters and books on post neoclassical endogenous growth theory, Labour MPs looked forward to an easier life in opposition. Honing their invective against the “Tories little helpers” and the “yellow Tories” . Labour MPs believe that the Lib-Con alliance will crack in exactly fifty days, when the Tories’ emergency budget unveils the true horror of the cuts to be inflicted on the public sector – on local government, social services, non-front line health etc.. The very public sector that employs most Liberal Democrat voters. The public sector unions will be out on the streets within weeks and Labour will be joining them on the picket lines, fighting the Tory-Liberal cuts. Cleggie! Cleggie! Cleggie! Out! Out! Out!
In Scotland, Labour are going back to their constituencies to prepare for government after the 2011 Scottish elections. All those ex-Labour Scottish Liberal Democrat voters are horrified that they ended up with a Tory government and many will never vote Libdem again. Alex Salmond’s enthusiastic advocacy of the “progressive coalition” concealed just how poor a result Thursday was for the nationalists who, far from winning 20 seats, emerged one with fewer than when the campaign began. With Labour on the march in Scotland, the SNP will have to have to fight like hell to win re-election But one thing we can say for certain, whatever the Holyrood result: neither of them will be eager to form a coalition with the new pariahs of Scottish politics: the Liberal Democrats.