One year on - how long can the coalition survive?
Clegg and Cameron have pledged a more ‘businesslike’ relationship as the strain of government shows
On the anniversary of the birth of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, both Nick Clegg and David Cameron have admitted that the facade they presented to the British public as they strolled together through the No 10 rose garden in May 2010 has crumbled. Now it has been replaced by a more businesslike and formal approach to the business of government.
And in the wake of the Lib Dem's humiliation in local elections and the AV referendum defeat last week Clegg has vowed to be "more assertive" in government, pushing a brand of "muscular liberalism". He even went as far as to talk about a "coalition of necessity, not of conviction".
Cameron said that he expected more disagreements to be played out in public as the coalition enters its second year, with the vexing issue of NHS to the fore.
The voters are not convinced that the marriage will survive - or that it has been any good so far. In an ITV News poll 49 per cent said that coalition had been bad for Britain and 53 per cent said it had been a disappointment. Less than a third expected it to last five years.
Norman Tebbit writing for the Telegraph believes that the disappointment of the electorate could actually bind the two parties together. He argues that the coalition "was born out of fear of facing the electors in a second election in 2010. It sticks together out of a fear of facing the electors in 2011."
But he too fears for the long term future of the relationship. Once the NHS reforms are out of the way, he says, the "balance of fear will change, and by the coalition's second birthday Mr Clegg should be the turkey far more terrified of an early Christmas".
In the Times, Rachel Sylvester has likened Nick Clegg to the gingerbread man of the children's tale, who hitches a lift on the back of a fox only to be lured towards his mouth and gobbled up.
She says there has been a breakdown in trust between the two parties since the AV referendum, and that means personal relationships within government will change. "For the past 12 months the Lib Dems have played a powerful role in decontaminating the Tory brand," she writes. "After last week, however, the Lib Dem leader knows that he must concentrate on decontaminating his own party's brand."
Talking of Clegg, Mike Smithson, at Politicalbetting.com believes the Lib Dem leader has been underminded by not getting a ministerial portfolio. "He operated without the normal support structure from the civil service that secretaries of state have. In many ways he was in the worst of all worlds," he comments.
Smithson adds that one of the reasons the coalition survived its first year was the masterstroke of making Vince Cable business secretary with responsibility for higher education. "This meant that the inevitable hot potato of the student fee issue was in the hands of a Lib Dem cabinet minister," he points out.
Alastair Campbell, a veteran of the Tony Blair years, warns the coalition not to focus on relations within the cabinet and concentrate on getting the job done. He talks of media 'prisms' and says the focus is moving away from reporting on a "coalition working together to sort out Labour's mess" to stories about how the parties are "working separately to re-establish our own identity".
He warns: "It is clear that too many ministers and MPs think the public care about their emotional disposition towards each other. They don't."
Meanwhile, the BBC's deputy political editor, James Landale points out that the coalition has pushed through some genuinely radical policies in its first year that could have brought down a less stable partnership.
He points out that the government has addressed "long-term, heavy lifting, tricky public policy issues that past governments have been unwilling or unable to tackle." He goes on: "All of that, of course, on top of the deepest, fastest spending cuts in recent history, begun at astonishing speed in a flurry of budgets and reviews."
Both parties still need each other adds Lansdale, and things will only get tougher politically as the spending cuts bite. But he concludes: "The danger will come from personality clashes and policy differences that become irreconcilable or an electoral disaster that threatens the very existence of the Liberal Democrats if they remain in coalition. But we are not there yet, not by a long chalk." ·
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