Analysis: Cameron turns to the carrot after stick fails

The main threat to the coalition comes from Cameron's own backbenchers
The main threat to the coalition comes from Cameron's own backbenchers

Cameron's pro-business speech reveals his nervousness. He has yet to work out how to pacify his backbenchers.

By Ian Dunt

It is the great pacification of political debate. Two weeks in and it's clear that one of the main side products of a coalition government is a drive towards the centre.

Strangely, it is precisely this need which has forced David Cameron to make such a distinctly right wing speech. His first major speech, delivered this lunchtime in Yorkshire, was designed to reassure Tory voters and backbenchers that he is still a Conservative. There's little there to please progressives.

Behind the speeches, the main battle goes on in the halls of Westminster, as backbenchers work out the limits of their political allegiance to a coalition which could end up satisfying no-one.

It's like some glorious, complicated version of what Tony Blair used to do with Labour. The former PM loved picking fights with his own party. It played well in the media and helped cement in voters' minds that he would not allow a leftward drift to militancy. Most party members thought this was just for the cameras and that he would stop once he was in Downing Street. It didn't. If he was ever in a spot of bother Blair resorted to fighting with his party again. It was his default position and he clearly felt comfortable there.

Nick Clegg and Cameron's relationship with their parties are different. Both are far closer to the heart of their party than Blair was with Labour, even if Clegg is mildly to the right and Cameron to the left of the backbenchers. These men are not picking fights; they are having fights thrust upon them. The backbenchers must be pacified for the centre to hold, and in coalition the centre is everything.

So far, Tory backbenchers have proved more rabid. John Redwood has been writing open letters to the Treasury concerning capital gains. David Davis, still smarting from not being offered a Cabinet job, took up the baton in the Daily Mail yesterday. Cameron's cack-handed attempt to neutralise the backbench 1922 committee saw him survive the vote on whether to allow ministers in, but earn ugly headlines about the level of rebellion towards him so early in his prime ministerial career. "Being under the rule of David Cameron is like being in an abusive relationship: one minute it's all kisses and cuddles and the next you are cowering in the corner," one Tory backbencher told the Metro newspaper.

Clegg has an easier task, although he's also followed it more sensibly. Lib Dem MPs are split on a left-right axis, with many 'Orange Bookers' among the ranks of centre-left progressives. Usually that's a problem. In the current scenario, it alleviates the tension. The Tory rank-and-file is considerably to the right of the leadership, especially a leadership in bed with the Lib Dems.

But Clegg has several other factors in his favour as well. Lib Dem MPs are also more enamoured with being in power. They know what they can win - civil liberties, parliamentary and voting reform - and that has given them discipline.
They also know that the coalition will be the making or breaking of them. It's unthinkable that the Lib Dems will emerge from the coalition the way they came in. It will either cripple them as a party or it will make them. The latter is arguably more likely, as voters' main concern about the party - that it can't win - is made redundant by its presence in government.

But it's clearly not just these factors that have made the Lib Dems better behaved. Clegg has also played an important role by being more open, egalitarian and patient than Cameron. He made no authoritarian moves to shut down debate, and is reported to want a left winger for the role of deputy leader, which Simon Hughes, who satisfies that description, will presumably secure. This isn't necessarily fluffy liberalism. It's a cold headed political calculation. Opponents are rarely conquered by censorship. It's far more effective to give them representation in a non-powerful position. The deputy leadership of the Lib Dems does not entail much power, but a prominent role occupied by a famous lefty will help pacify much of the parliamentary party's concerns about the victory of the Orange Bookers.

That concern will only expand as David Laws cuts spending in his aloof and distinctly Tory-like manner. Clegg is wise to gets the pieces in play now which might later damped resentment.

At the heart of the Lib-Con deal is a simple series of mutual concessions. Each party quite clearly gave way on the policies it could live without - both politically and in terms of retaining popularity. Those they couldn't jettison and their partner couldn't stomach went to committees or were granted abstention status. In the Lib Dems' case they secured extensive parliamentary reform, a referendum on AV, and civil liberties. In exchange they gave the Tories a clear run on the economy and a host of policy areas the Lib Dems clearly felt comfortable with - welfare reform, education reform and others. It was only because the Orange Bookers conducted the negotiations that a deal was possible and widely-shared Lib Dem concerns could be secured.

That pact, made in the heat of the moment, as everyone involved felt the deadening effect of fatigue and exhaustion from the election campaign, is now the temporary Bible of British politics. Backbenchers are its greatest threat.

Cameron's speech today is a clear attempt to reassure his voters and MPs that despite everything he is very much a Tory. Soon, Clegg will have to make his own speech, when Lib Dems get hot under the collar about some right wing policy or other. The question is: how long will Britain tolerate two parties delivering rhetoric contrary to that of their partner before the whole thing looks like a total mess?

So far Cameron is the weaker link. He tried the stick with the 1922 committee, and today he tried the carrot. He needs to find something which works quickly, or his backbenchers could soon reduce the coalition's life expectancy.


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