Many have compared David Cameron to Disraeli over the last few days. The new collaborative politics that seems a consequence of coalition government could turn out to be as important as the shift towards popular suffrage in the 1860s. Well, maybe. Disraeli’s reward for embracing democracy was the opportunity to create a Conservative Party that could attract popular support. Many conservative parties on the Continent signally failed to negotiate this transformation and ended up as dangerous, reactionary movements – truly nasty parties.
Novelty is inherently unpredictable. Optimists will see this coalition as a great opportunity to strengthen both parties. But already the likes of Charles Kennedy, and so far nameless Tory right-wingers, are lining up to offer more pessimistic predictions. For the Conservative Party the new arrangement seems to pose few existential dangers. Alternatively the prospect of a further period of opposition would have been dire for the coherence of the Conservative Party. People don’t vote Conservative as an act of protest or to express some ethereal opinion. The Conservative Party exists to govern and if that prospect became ever more distant the Party’s support would quickly dwindle.
This will be an important episode in the history of the Conservative Party, but one of many in its 200 year history. The ‘Strange Death of Tory Britain’ that some predicted was never really likely and much less so now. Yet for the Lib Dems the new politics does seem existential stuff.
Labour are sure that the Lib Dems have yielded the ‘progressive’ ground to them. Here wish is clearly father of thought. Labour’s criticism of the Lib Dems is remarkably complacent. Instead of reflecting on their low vote (the lowest since 1918 in Wales) they now expect all non-Conservative opinion to rally around the Labour flag. Labour may end up looking out of touch as Britain moves towards more competitive, multi-party politics. But should the Lib Dems fear absorption by the Conservatives? After all, to some extent this was Lloyd George’s fate.
There seem to be three possible outcomes. The first is simply that politics will return to type before the next General Election. It might happen like this: after a couple of years the coalition collapses as internal divisions are tested by a continuing economic crisis, or failure of AV to be approved in the promised referendum. A Conservative minority government would perhaps struggle on for a year or so, with an all too traditional election following. This outcome would be bad for the Conservative Party, worse for the Lib Dems, best for Labour.
Second, the coalition may survive until May 2015 and succeed in tackling the worst effects of the economic crisis. AV may have been endorsed, the House of Lords reformed and elected using STV, and a more collaborative approach to politics taken root. If this benign scenario is achieved, coalition government could become the norm in British politics. Meanwhile, Labour, mauled by a bitter and closely contested leadership election, might struggle to adapt. This outcome would be good for the Conservatives, best for the Lib Dems, worst for Labour.
Finally, the coalition may end by mutual agreement and with some partial success after three years or so. Both parties would feel that the maximum benefit had been extracted from the coalition and be keen to offer a fuller prospectus. Coalition would be seen as acceptable but well short of the ideal. While this result would not be bad for the Conservatives or Lib Dems, it would be better for Labour.
Would the Lib Dems have lost most of their appeal as a party of the centre left under all of these circumstances? Those who expect or wish for this outcome should consider the following points. The Lib Dems are set to become a party of government at the UK level. Already their cabinet members look the part and any accusation that they are bearded, sandaled dreamers is patently risible. Yes they will lose some of their purists to the Greens, but they will also pick up support from the steady middle of politics.
The expectation that the Lib Dems will either be absorbed by the Conservatives or annihilated by Labour is just the latest guise of the old fashioned two party orthodoxy. We are not there anymore! This coalition is a consequence of Britain’s steady shift to multi-party politics not the eccentric or treacherous choice of the Lib Dems after the fluke of a hung parliament.
And finally let me spell out what centre parties do in multi-party systems. They enter coalitions! Had the Lib Dems ducked this challenge they would have consigned themselves to protest politics for ever. If not now, when? would have been the electorate’s angry question. The only coalition that had a hope of durability was one with the Conservatives. Now there is a danger of this association with the Conservatives becoming too close. But consider the consequences of the far more dangerous alternative that was open to the Lib Dems. Had they taken up Gordon Brown’s offer they would have been viewed less as an independent party of the centre and more as a variation of Labour. Centre parties are strongest when they moderate the electors’ principal choice, and weakest when they attempt to overturn the electors’ verdict on an unpopular government.
In reading the times so astutely both Cameron and Clegg are Disraeli’s children. But is success assured? Hardly. After his audacious Reform Act Disraeli lost the subsequent election… But that was not the end of the matter – the Conservative Party went on to dominate British politics for 140 years.