Analysis: Laws will recover, but will the coalition?

Nick Clegg and David Cameron face life without David Laws
Nick Clegg and David Cameron face life without David Laws

David Laws' resignation gives him the time and space to recover and regroup. The coalition government has no such luxury.

By Alex Stevenson

It must continue, weakened by scandal and undermined by the loss of a key uniting figure, even as Laws rebuilds his shattered private life.

This is not a resignation like many others.

Under the New Labour government there was a tendency for ministers, having committed outrageous errors and been forced out of office, to return to the fold with a rapidity and smoothness which enraged critics. Laws' resignation is not like that. He had to go but he has to come back, too.

Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg understand this. The deputy prime minister wanted him to stay on, getting through the attacks to continue his vital work in the Treasury. The PM, more pragmatic but equally desirous of Laws' contribution, simply said: "I hope that, in time, you will be able to serve again."

Laws' political capital had rocketed in his brief spell in power. The success of that first task, finding £6 billion of spending cuts in 2010/11, had been a strong start to the hard work ahead. More importantly, he made the Tory-Lib Dem tie-up seem natural.

"It was as if he had been put on earth to do the job that was asked of him," as George Osborne put it. Laws was the acceptable City-loving sort of politician with the financial sector background which so many Conservatives could identify with. Danny Alexander, his successor, is more of an unknown quantity. The coalition's prospects are dimmed as a result.

This is not to say they are fatally wounded, however. We are still in very early days for a government whose leadership is determined to do all it can to secure a fixed five-year term.

There may yet be more skeletons to unearth within the cupboards of senior Lib Dems, who have avoided the scrutiny of the larger parties - until now.

But as things stand the loss of even such a key figure as Laws is unlikely to have any immediate short-term impact. His absence is more likely to have a cumulative effect, as the churn of everyday life in government erodes internal confidence in the coalition.

Already the potential weaknesses are clear. Would Alexander really have been a credible alternative at the despatch box to Alistair Darling last week? This, as the shadow chancellor will inevitably say at some point in the coming weeks, is no time for a novice.

The Lib Dems' reputation, too, will have been rocked. In a government whose watchword so far has been "strong and secure government", the prospect of its ministers being floored by enhanced scrutiny so quickly will damage the notion this is a party prepared for government.

Yet there is also a sense the usual impact of a shock resignation is somewhat dimmed by its early timing. There is still sufficient freshness about two parties working together within Whitehall that the idea of coalition remains bigger than any one man.

And there could be a hidden benefit in Laws' unexpected departure. When things begin to flag, and Cameron eventually decides an injection of new energy is required, Laws' re-entry into government could be a welcome fillip for the government.

That assumes the coalition survives until a reshuffle becomes necessary. If the Conservatives or Lib Dems lose faith with each other historians will point to Laws' absence as the first step towards the collapse to come.


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