Britain has a new government and it is a Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition, the electorate has spoken, and this blog is firm in its conviction that David Cameron is delighted with the result, in fact the outcome could not have been better from his point of view. How can this be so, surely a coalition with a progressive-left party will be a disaster for Dave?
Simple, the Conservatives are fully cognizant of the mortal peril inherent in succeeding a Labour government, for while they may potter along quite happily for a decade or so if propped up by global low interest rates and low inflation, inevitably they end in a train-wreck which the Conservatives have to clean up via wildly unpopular cuts in public spending.
The worse the train-wreck the worse the resentment, and as the US economist David Hale relates, the Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King is warning that the victor in next week’s election will be forced into austerity measures that will keep the party out of power for a generation. The Conservatives Party is already known as the ‘nasty’ party and treated with visceral hatred by a significant proportion of the electorate as a result of the Thatcher cuts in the eighties, and Cameron will have to cut a lot deeper than Thatcher ever did.
The scale of the problem Cameron faces is compounded by Labours ‘scorched earth’ policy of massive unfunded spending liabilities in the months before the election, such as the half billion school building program mainly targeted at Labour marginals, working on the electoral calculus that such programs may buy enough votes to win the general election, and if they didn’t they would be a massive problem for a new Conservative government. This is far removed from the ‘golden legacy’ received by Gordon Brown in 1997, who on being informed of the authors of this happy state of affairs allegedly snarled in response; “what do you want me to do, send them a f*&(!^$ thank-you note!”
If the cleverest act of the devil was to persuade the world that he didn’t exist, then the Labour equivalent would be to persuade its core electorate that Tories cut spending because they are callous and immoral profiteers rather than because the events of the previous government force their hand.
Looking back to April, what can Cameron do in the run up to a General Election where his party have failed to make the breakthrough necessary to form the stable majority government and pass the difficult austerity measures in parliament?
Some in his party, aware of Mervyn King’s pronouncement, were happy to let a Lib-Lab coalition ‘win’ the election in the knowledge that the coming cuts were so horrible as to make this a “good election to lose”, with the intention of waiting for the coalitions rapid collapse and then get a real majority shortly after.
Others in his party, sticking to tribal political instinct, were advocating a minimalist supply-and-confidence arrangement where the Lib-Dems are held at arms length with the minimal cooperation necessary to restore market confidence in the British economy, with the intention of rapidly calling another election.
In the event, Cameron jumped in a completely unexpected direction, because he made the following deductions:
1. That choosing to lose elections is not a viable strategy in a two-point-five party system, for doing so would consolidate the opinion that the Conservatives do not have the answers to a country in crisis and the electorate may choose to look elsewhere for an alternative to Labour.
2. That failing to heed the will of an already disenchanted electorate, for a genuine spirit of cooperation and collaboration to fix this particular crisis, would be remembered with disgust when a half-hearted and reluctant coalition broke apart before the economy had recovered.
3. That as long as Labour remain the significant party of progressive-left politics the tribal hatred of Tories as destroyers of public services among the progressive electorate will persist, but by putting the Liberal Democrats in a position of power a new progressive consensus could be formed around a new progressive party absent that tribal hatred.
The Conservative party face an existential threat at the next election, and the answer was obvious; to jump into bed with an enthusiastic, whole-hearted and full-blown coalition with the Liberal Democrats. A very pointed and public demonstration of the Conservative acquiescence to the public demand for a government of national unity was the appointment of the Labour MP Frank Field as Poverty Tsar.
If the coalition failed before its five year term and a new election called then the news would be plastered with post-mortems of the aborted coalition government and at the forefront of that would be television interviews of Dave’s “big open and comprehensive offer”, the Conservative Party had heeded the will of the electorate and been brought down by partisan sniping from unreliable partners who claimed to represent ‘new’ politics. This impression would now be reinforced by the Lib-Dems ‘underhanded’ talks with Labour, a response necessary to placate Lib-Dem party members and activists, but irrelevant to an electorate that wanted a government of national unity to bring Britain out of crisis.
If the coalition succeeds then it was not the Tories that yet again slashed and burnt their way through Britain’s beloved public services, rather it was the considered and necessary actions of a government of national unity, led by the Liberal Democrat politician David Laws as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The coalition has already already damaged Lib-Dem support among the left-wing of the party, and this division between the free-marketeers of the orange-book and the beard-n-sandals brigade will only increase as more cuts to public spending are made, and the Lib-Dems will go into the next election with a divided electorate.
The really interesting prospect is going to be the evolution of the Liberal Democrats during the course of the current parliament, for they have long been a bi-polar party resulting their position as the point-five party in a two-point-five party system, the need to achieve critical mass necessitates an opportunistic and inconsistent nature. However, Cameron has given them real power with five Cabinet positions and a further fifteen Ministerial positions, and has done so by offering an orange-book Party leader a home inside a government sympathetic to free-market and small-state principles, so the party will naturally align itself in this direction to the disgust of the left-wing element of the party base. With real power for the first time in a century the Liberal Democrats will be obliged to adopt the pragmatism of government, whose lack thus far permitted their zanier policies, and they will be seen by the electorate as a genuine party of power rather than a wasted vote. If the coalition survives and the recovery happens as per the schedule then Cameron has an opportunity to initially split the progressive-left vote, and eventually to create a new progressive-left opposition which is both further to the right and absent the tribal hatred of the Tories. The adoption of Frank Field, a man known for his unbending principle is not only sensible it is also a mechanism for removing the exclusivity of ‘compassion’ that Labour wears like a mantle, an important badge of honour for any aspiring party of progressive-left politics.
The final element to this strategy is the newly created Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent fiscal watchdog whose first act will be to pronounce judgement on the Labour years. The purpose being to shock-and-awe the electorate into disgust at the scale of the previous governments profligacy at their expense, and it has two principle aims:
1. To separate effect from cause, by making the coming cuts Labours fault rather than the Conservatives, in a way that Tory’s must wish Thatcher had been able to do all those years ago.
2. To give the Lib-Dems every possible opportunity to grow into the space currently occupied by Labour within progressive-left politics, by having a neutral body expose Labours incompetence.
The danger in considering this strategy before the election would have been question of how solid the Lib-Dem leaders debate surge really was, for if it held and thus been reflected by an increase in forty of fifty seats then Cameron would have lacked the leverage to force agreement on a truly Conservative manifesto. Fortunately for Cameron the gamble paid off, the surge died and the Lib-Dems did even worse than the previous general election in 2005, which is a poor electoral mandate with which Clegg could demand in negotiations that the Lib-Dems policies be adopted en-mass.
Cameron will be very pleased with the result achieved, he has Tories in the key positions of Defence, Foreign Policy, and Europe to placate the Tory right, as well as a policy manifesto that is mainly blue in hue which will allow the Conservatives to claim the credit for the recovery at the next election, whilst cherry picking some sensible Lib-Dem policies and jettisoning some not-so-sensible Tory ones. Best of all, they will achieve all this whilst dodging full and unequivocal responsibility for the public sector spending cuts due to be announced in the coming months.
Cameron appears to have a plan to win the next election in 2015, and it depends on seeing the Lib-Dems smothered with love. The longer term aim being to re-author political discourse of left-right politics around the central tenet of the ‘self authored life’ thereby excluding state oriented philosophy as irrelevant to the progressive mantle that even the Conservatives now lay claim.
Update – 17/05/2010
It would appear that Liam Byrne, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is determined to help Cameron replace Labour with the Lib-Dems as the mainstream party of progressive-left politics, via his ‘humorous’ letter to his successor David Laws stating; “I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left.”