Comment: It's later than Cameron and Clegg think

The beginning of the end
The beginning of the end
Alex Stevenson By

It has been two years since the last general election. The coalition has surprised everyone by being united and unexpectedly bold in its reforms. Some of them, like changes to the benefits system, are likely to stick. Others, like Lords reform, have fallen by the wayside.

This is the awkward middle episode of the trilogy, the dip before things get exciting again. In economic terms, the 'dip' analogy is very appropriate. Due to circumstances beyond the coalition's control – or so they would have you believe – the UK's gross domestic product is now shrinking, rather than growing. Austerity is being extended well into the next parliament.

There are still nearly three years to go until the next general election, but the ruthless logic of deficit reduction makes the coalition parties' task much harder. Nick Clegg pleaded with Lib Dems to hold on, to wait and see, to bear with him as the government sorted out Britain. Britain does not look very sorted out right now. Lib Dems who doubted their deputy PM's optimism in September 2010 will feel vindicated, as the chances of an improving situation by 2015 are now much lower.

This autumn the coalition's leaders begin playing the cards they have been saving up for when things start getting tough. The first reshuffle will take place next month. Then comes the vital task of midterm renewal, initially put off but now embraced by ministers, in which David Cameron and Clegg will negotiate anew their priorities in the time remaining to them.

It's later than they think. Coalitions become harder, not easier, to manage as time progresses. MPs' thoughts are already turning to how they can maximise their chances of saving their seats at the next election. Party strategists will begin agonising over the dilemmas of policy differentiation. We can expect growing calls for the Tories and Lib Dems to part company altogether in the 12 months before 2015.

Some sort of minority government, propped up formally or informally by the Lib Dems, is a less improbable prospect than it was even a few months ago. That's because an unexpected factor has taken a position of undue prominence in British politics: emotion.

In countries around the world where coalition politics is a more everyday event, politicians from different parties are able to make compromises without harbouring deep resentments. They give as good as they get when it comes to the occasional fait accompli or unexpected negotiating position fro their partners. They don't let grievances fester and don't treat each other with outright contempt. Clegg declared that this 'new politics' was arriving in Britain, but the reality of life under two-party government has not reflected any real change in the mood – and instincts – of Conservative MPs.

From the 'betrayal' of the Lib Dems over the Jeremy Hunt vote, when Clegg's party abstained and won the enmity of vast swathes of the Tory party, or the vicious tactics of the 'no' campaign in the electoral reform referendum which disgusted Lib Dems and led to open rowing at Cabinet, the 'calm and businesslike' relationship between the two parties has become a myth anywhere below the most senior levels. Cameron and Clegg's problem is that while the midterm renewal drive will keep the leadership united at the top, it will do very little to reverse the distancing taking place at the grassroots level. Eventually the parties' bases will be so far from each other the whole structure will collapse.

This is why, even at this dead point in the middle of the parliament, the politics of who runs this country is going to start getting interesting again. The decisions taken in the next 12 months – how the coalition copes with the inevitable policy arguments and scraps that will ensue in the day-to-day business of governing the country – will determine its chances of survival in the final two-year period. From the spring of 2013 onwards the biggest reforms will become impossible. Several years will have passed since the British public declared it did not want a single political party to control the reins of power on its own, but it will only be in the final two years of the parliament that that verdict has its greatest effect.

Just 16% of voters think the coalition will make it all the way to May 2015, a recent poll showed. So all the talk will be of the government's premature demise. This will be the period of opportunity for a man and his party not mentioned so far: Ed Miliband.

Labour's leader has been more mocked than praised in his first two years in opposition. But as the coalition descends into unresolvable divisions he will have a real chance to present himself as the leader of a united party with a clear alternative to the divisions and tortures of life under the coalition.

When the history books are written about the 2010-2015 period, Labour will feature as something of a footnote. They have been the least interesting party, trapped by the weight of their 13 years in power. As the coalition enters its crisis period, that could all change. Just as time is already running out for Cameron and Clegg, so Miliband's real arrival as a political force may prove closer than we all supposed.

The opinions in'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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