Analysis: The coalition's great con trick

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Life in two-party government is one of compromise. Nothing ever gets done, as this week's row on climate change has revealed
Life in two-party government is one of compromise. Nothing ever gets done, as this week's row on climate change has revealed

Stable and united, that's what we were told – but the realities of this hung parliament are much more acrimonious than we've been led to believe.

Everyone was surprised during the first year of the coalition government. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats strained every sinew to impress journalists, voters and the markets that they were a credible team. It took several months for fears about the instability of coalitions, stoked by the Tories during the 2010 campaign to counter Britain's brief bout of Cleggmania, to be put to bed. But put to bed they were.

It was as if the hung parliament had never happened. Coalition government became the norm. More meetings and internal negotiations were needed to keep that front united, but the 'businesslike' cooperation between Tories and Lib Dems succeeded in maintaining that illusion. Where trouble spots did develop, steps were taken behind the scenes to prevent them happening again.

Such was the overwhelming prominence of the spending cuts agenda, where unity was genuine, that the sense of a united government remained powerful for a full year. It was the acrimony surrounding the campaign for the electoral reform referendum which ended the coalition's prolonged honeymoon. Since then the two parties have become increasingly bitter towards each other. Lib Dems, paralysed by the shock of successive local elections disasters, have realised they have no other choice but to cling on until 2015. Tory backbenchers, secure in the knowledge that they have a chance of actually swimming when the inevitable comes, have been happier to rock the boat.


Now we're in the middle year of this parliament the bigger picture is becoming clear. Parliamentary squabbling is important, because it's at from this level that the drive towards the early collapse of the coalition will emerge. Thanks to massive Commons rebellions on issues like the European Union and Lords reform, backbenchers will continue to attract all the attention.

Not enough notice is being paid to those backroom coalition disputes within Whitehall, though. Life in two-party government is one of compromise. Nothing ever gets done, as this week's row on climate change has revealed.

It was a classic coalition standoff. A Lib Dem secretary of state, trying to protect the interests of his department against the machinations of the Tory-controlled Treasury. Ed Davey and the Lib Dems hold renewable energy close to their hearts, so they fought all they could to block Conservatives seeking cuts of 25% to subsidies for wind farms.

Enter George Osborne. The chancellor accepted a ten per cent cut in return for an agreement that natural gas will continue to be part of Britain's energy mix after 2030. The idea had been that fossil fuels would be out of the equation altogether after that date, as MPs had suggested earlier this week. Now that is not to be. Both sides have made concessions and neither are happy.

That's life in coalition. And it's typical of a broader trend taking place across government at the moment. The problem goes deep. Compromises often end up being nothing more than deferred decisions, where putting critical choices off is the best way to avoid a confrontation. The wind industry faces continued uncertainty as investment stutters on. Important decisions about the 80% carbon emissions reduction target by 2050 haven't been taken. Far from being the greenest government ever – a claim that would have required bold action to be justified – the coalition has left itself open to the vagaries of uncertainty and indecision.

In a whole array of areas the government has failed to be as bold or radical as it might have otherwise been. Hopelessly disagreeing on Britain's nuclear deterrent, the main gate decision over whether to go ahead with renewing Trident has been put off until after 2015. The question of airport expansion in the south-east remains unanswered, as ministers put off coming up with proposals until the autumn. Gay marriage and Lords reform are supposed to become realities by 2015, but political opposition from the Tories are threatening to overturn them.

We're used to a powerful executive – and very often the government is too powerful. But the alternative is not as rosy as it sounds. Coalition ministers have constructed a myth that theirs is a government of consensus and action. It might be true on the economy, but in so many other areas the nightmares of a hung parliament – the 'manana' attitude when agreement simply isn't achievable – are very real.

Pragmatism in office is a necessary part of life in power. Every politician making the transition from opposition to government, from poetry to prose, knows that. The coalition will be able to continue carefully putting decisions off as 2015 approaches; it's becoming very good at it.

Pressures from below are likely to make that process become more challenging, however. As the next general election nears disgruntled backbenchers will do more and more to get their way on specific issues, skewing the terms of engagement more and more in their favour. Had the environment dilemma cropped up in two years' time, you have to wonder whether a deal would be reached so easily.

There will be many more compromises to come and for each one the task of even securing a deal will become harder and harder. So much for the coalition's great con trick: by 2015 the public will have seen straight through it. If disillusioned voters respond by returning another hung parliament, will the idea of another coalition government look as attractive to them?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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