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David Cameron, general election, general election. hung parliament. electoral reform. liberal democrats. coalition, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Nick Clegg

A Very Civil Partnership.

   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. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


5 thoughts on “A Very Civil Partnership.

  1. One thing you did miss out was that the SNP share of the vote went up which will be a bonus for the Holyrood elections.

    Posted by Conway | May 14, 2010, 7:53 am
  2. Very disappointing final paragraph Iain. Do you actually believe Labour have any right to feel remotely angry with the LibDems? Do you not think the Scottish people have every right to be furious with the Labour Party? In this final paragraph you're painting them like some sort of righteous saviour when in fact they betrayed Scotland, not the LibDems!Go and read Tom Harris' blog Iain. Before the deal was even done he was hinting he may stand as Deputy Leader if Harman ran for Leader. This was while some in Labour were still trying to get a deal in a coalition. Harris didn't care. Reid (who wasn't even standing this election!) didn't care, Alexander didn't care and neither did Gray or Murphy. They proved Iain what politics is about for them and it isn't about Scotland, its just about them. And incidentally they also proved that FPTP is their preferred option. They don't want a more balanced voting system. If they can't have absolute power then they will be happy with nothing. And to hell with all the votes they implored the Scottish people to cast on May 6th for Labour so that they would "save" us from the Tories! So here we go again. We had a clearly instable Margaret Curran ranting absolute nonsense about this all being the fault of the SNP for standing candidates against Labour. Good God, this is outrageous even by her standards. For as well as absolute power are Labour saying no other Parties should stand in Scotland? Ask her Iain, ask her what she meant! Because there's a name for one-Party state set ups and journalists like you should be shooting people like Curran down in flames when she comes out with rubbish like that. How DARE she blame the SNP when they proved they were willing to work within a coalition along with Labour, the Lib-Dems and the other Parties. Labour said no, no one else. And I'll tell you something else. Some in the SNP paid Gordon Brown more respect when he left than many of his own did. Indeed many of his own have been plotting this moment for more than two years and THAT damaged the entire campaign also. They might want to think that over when they start their ludicrous "servants of the devil" nonsense at the Lib-Dems. Brown's greatest enemies were within his own Party and that is a fact. I think Clegg has made the best of a bad job. I think Clegg was thinking about coalition with Labour and others until the very public announcements started from the likes of Reid, Alexander and the rest. Indeed Iain, it has been said that many within English Labour were furious at the conduct of the Scots in ruling out any coalition and scuppering the whole thing! And you think Labour is now "on the march" to go into government next year? Have you forgotten their last Health Secretary here who was happy to close A&Es in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire and did not give a toss about the implications of that for ordinary (Labour) folk who lived there? Have you forgotten Andy Kerr was too busy talking to bigwigs about the decision to go and actually talk to the people who were going to lose their A&Es? Because if it wasn't for the SNP Iain those A&Es would be gone by now. It was the SNP who saved them! Jo

    Posted by Anonymous | May 14, 2010, 10:03 am
  3. Typo ….read unstable for instable!

    Posted by Anonymous | May 14, 2010, 10:04 am
  4. The problem is Jo that the media within Scotland would rather have second rate MSPs running Scotland,they have no desire to see Scotland prosper and better itself.They want the Labour party to run Scotland no matter what damage it does to her .I enjoy reading your blogs Iain but what is it with the Scottish media that will not support our First minister and help gel Scottish opinion to create a united Scotland .

    Posted by Conway | May 14, 2010, 3:23 pm
  5. Hi ConwayWhen I was young I wanted to go into journalism. Too many of them function without any regard whatsoever for the truth. I'm glad I didn't go for it. I totally respect Iain Macwhirter but I'm surprised at this article. It lacks his usual balance. That Curran could get away with such an outrageous rant and actually suggest the SNP had no right to stand against Labour is difficult to believe but this is Scotland and so no one says a word. And they say "nationalists" are the extremists? I didn't hear her say the Tories shouldn't have stood or the Lib-Dems incidentally: just the nationalists. That woman is so full of hatred she just doesn't know where to stop. Margaret Curran has no right to speak to people like that and the Labour Party does not have the right to dictate who will stand against them nor does she have the right to tell people who we should vote for. Her arrogance is truly breathtaking.Jo G

    Posted by Anonymous | May 14, 2010, 9:04 pm

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