STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: David Cameron and Nick Clegg enter the UK’s first coalition for 70 years
The Labour beast has finally been slain. Aside from die hard socialist sentimentalists and those with a tribal hatred of the Conservatives, most will welcome the news. Thirteen years of one-party rule was enough.
The results of the May 6 election meant there never was any realistic alternative to what transpired – a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition with David Cameron as prime minister.
Simply put, it may not be ideal but it was the best option around. An alliance of losers – Labour and the Liberal Democrats – would have been greeted with widespread derision, not just by traditional right-wing opponents but by almost the entire press and most of the British public, as well as financial speculators and foreign leaders.
Can anyone imagine Gordon Brown strutting the international stage – batting for Britain – when everyone knew he polled two million votes fewer than the Conservatives? Britain would have been a laughing stock. Even if Labour and the Liberal Democrats had managed to secure a deal – or, more accurately, an unethical and fraudulent "stitch-up" – it would have lacked an overall majority in the house of commons. Both parties would have faced wipeout at the next general election, which surely would have come quickly.
To their credit, Labour’s sensible MPs – Dr John Reid and David Blunkett – realised this would have been not only an unholy and unworkable alliance but a manifest absurdity given the election result.
Plenty of entertainment was provided during five days of frenetic back room manoeuverings, especially from supposedly sensible columnists such as Will Hutton and Polly Toynbee who argued in favour of a "progressive" coalition of losers.
Toynbee’s entry in The Guardian on May 12 shows that she is ripe for the comedy circuit. Here she is referring to the supposedly missed opportunity of a Labour-Liberal pact. "Shimmering on the horizon for an evanescent moment was the chance of a progressive alliance, a rocket about to take off, shooting for the moon."
Keep taking the pills, Ms Toynbee, because you clearly live on the moon anyway and don’t need a rocket to take you there. Either that or you are secretly contemptuous of democracy.
So what of Gordon Brown? Some will say that the notoriously curmudgeonly phone-thrower departed the stage with dignity. I suspect, unfortunately, that any "rehabilitation" will be shortlived once more revelations about his private conduct – in politicians’ forthcoming memoirs - emerge. Some will praise his supposed integrity but the timing of his first announcement on the evening of May 10 shows otherwise.
The evidence suggests that Brown was prepared to limp on as prime minister for a further few months if Labour and the Liberal Democrats had secured a deal, undermining confidence in the economy in the process.
David Cameron is one of the few politicians who emerges with enhanced credit from the machinations of the last few days. Where Nick Clegg dilly-dallied, conducting negotiations on two fronts, Cameron appeared purposeful and steadfast. He resisted any note of triumphalism on the steps of Downing Street, knowing it would have been unseemly given his failure to secure an overall majority. Many will also welcome Cameron’s nod to family values and personal responsibility after 13 years of a "where’s my giro?" culture. On a personal level, Cameron’s youth and vigour cannot but restore the UK’s jaded and shabby image abroad.
Truth is, however, all three leaders had reason to be disappointed in the election result. Clegg, because his yellow balloon that seemed set for stratospheric heights after the first debate (perhaps you thought it could have reached the moon on its own, Polly?) burst somewhere above Wales when its golden boy Lembit Opik suffered crushing defeat.
Brown, because he brought Labour to its lowest share of the vote since 1983 and Cameron because, despite an unpopular prime minister and severe recession, was unable to lead his party to outright victory. Fortunately for Cameron, the Conservative Party will scarcely have time for recriminations. As for Clegg, he’s a lucky man, now deputy prime minister and with five other Liberal Democrats in the cabinet to boot.
The new coalition will not be easy. Many Liberal Democrat MPs are slightly closer ideologically to Labour than to the Conservatives, although perhaps this has been exaggerated.
Early signs of policy shifts are not unpromising. Taking low earners out of taxation (a Liberal proposal) is a good measure as is the Conservative decision to ditch its plan to lift the inheritance tax threshold. Another wise move is the fixed term parliament. This will irritate pundits who delight in feverish speculation about the opportune moment for a prime minister to exercise his prerogative by calling an election. Anything that annoys the type of people who seemed to be wetting their knickers on Westminster Green over the past few days is welcome. It’s also good news because it removes the possibility of a government artificially pumping up the economy in anticipation of producing a short-term feel good factor.
Cameron must now concentrate on reducing the huge deficit. He would be wise also to remember a golden rule; in politics your most dangerous opponents are usually on your own side. Margaret Thatcher was not removed by the opposition but by the plotting of her own Conservative MPs. So, prime minister, remember to look over your shoulder in the house of commons and guard your rear.
Many right-wing Conservative MPs - people such as Bill Cash and Edward Leigh –who largely disappeared from public view over the past 13 years but who played a large part in wrecking John Major’s last Conservative government are suddenly re-emerging from behind leafy hedgerows and lace curtains, smelling "treacherous" Liberal Democrat europhiles sullying their blue linen.
Labour in travail
Traditionally, Labour falls apart in opposition. In 1979, the Conservative victory heralded years of fratricidal socialist bickering so venomous that it antagonised voters and also killed any notion that a left-wing party behaves with any measure of comradeship. That is unlikely to happen again. First, ideological issues have been resolved, largely to the detriment of the party’s Left.
Second, the party’s defeat could have been far worse. A year ago, many believed that Labour faced electoral oblivion. The result was slightly better than expected. In such a situation the party is more likely to keep its nerve.
David Miliband has emerged as the most likely successor to Brown. If he’s elected there’s very little difference between him and the other party leaders, although of course they would never admit this. If he joined the coalition he wouldn’t be out of place.
Perhaps Ed Balls would offer a little more red meat, but he’s an unlikely victor. Harriet Harman has effectively ruled herself out, Alan Johnson is a pleasant bloke but not really up to it. So it could even be a contest between the two Miliband brothers, a gift to satirists but then again, as the past few days have shown, politics can be a risible business.