I got to thinking about the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government this week. It is, in a sense, one of the more maligned governments of my lifetime. Labour people and indeed those on the left more generally paint it as an austerity creating beast; most Tory folk think of it as an unfortunate period that they had to endure before a full throated Conservative regime could take over. Even those remaining in the Lib Dems want to crap all over it, now thinking they can get the “progressive” vote back if only they apologise for taking part in this awful government enough times.
I will hold my hand up and say that the coalition government was the only one we’ve ever had in Britain that I liked during the time when it was in power. I can see upsides now of Blair and Thatcher’s governments that I didn’t feel at the time, which is different. I should confess that a lot of people I know and care about worked for the coalition government, including my wife, so it’s fair to say I’m not unbiased. Yet in trying to evaluate the pros and cons of the coalition from different perspectives, I have attempted to be as objective as possible.
I’ll start with the question of what effect the coalition had on the Tories and whether it a good thing for them in the long term, for the simple fact that this pretty easy to answer. While it probably helped Cameron hang on longer than he otherwise would have as Tory leader, it had no other real discernible effect on the Conservative party in the long term, really. I think the coalition delayed Brexit by a few years, that’s about it. Had the Lib Dems refused to go into government with them, there would have been a general election in a few months’ time and the Tories almost certainly would have won. Then, we would have had the same soap opera play out in the party as happened anyway, although we probably would have been spared Theresa May as prime minister (which, I’ll admit, is a strike against the coalition).
A brief note here on Labour and the Tory-Lib government. An enduring myth for many is the idea that Labour and the Lib Dems could have formed a government after the 2010 election. No, never. Not only were the numbers against this – together, the two parties still would only have had 315 seats – the real problem was that Labour really didn’t want it to happen. Or should I say, enough people around the top Labour table didn’t want a Lib-Lab coalition. Gordon Brown desperately wanted it to come together, I believe that much, but I don’t believe that anyone else – Balls, the Miliband brothers, Mandelson – really did. I think they figured it would be bad for them electorally to be in a fragile coalition that wouldn’t last, clinging onto power with the party that came a distant third. Better to let the Tories cut everything to death, making themselves unpopular in the process, and for the Lib Dems to commit suicide by going along with it. They’d be back in power in five years time, probably less.
I mention this because when evaluating the coalition from the perspective of what it did to the Lib Dems, this is important to bear in mind. The option wasn’t Lib-Lab vs Tory-Lib government, it was a coalition with the Tories or staying out of it all and waiting for the second general election of 2010.
Obviously, the coalition was bad for the Lib Dems. You can’t say anything else after what took place in 2015. However, it is worth looking at what happened in the 2010 general election and then trying to work out what might have happened if the Lib Dems had taken the alternative road and avoided going into government to get the whole picture.
At the time, there was a long held idea within the Lib Dems, around since merger had happened a little over 20 years previous, that if the Liberal Democrats could just get their voices heard – if only their leader could get on TV and reach millions of people who could hear the Lib Dem message unimpeded – then the breakthrough would come. That theory was perfectly tested in the 2010 general election campaign when after the first leaders’ debate, the Lib Dems actually topped a nationwide poll on 33%, one point ahead of the Tories. Clegg was “more popular than Churchill”. Although the polling sagged a little as election day neared, the final week or so before the big day saw the Lib Dems hover between 28 and 31%. We all knew at the time that the Lib Dems had to breakthrough and take at least a hundred seats, otherwise it was clear the two big parties were never going to allow anything like what happened in those three-way leaders debates to ever take place again.
And then, the let down. The Lib Dems got only 23% and managed to lose five seats. The theory that if only the party could get a hearing in the media and by the public it would result in electoral breakthrough had been tried and shown to be false. This was existential; the whole point of the party was now in question. ‘If not now now, then when?’ had been answered by the electorate as: never.
Again, the Lib Dems were faced with two choices after the election. One was to form a government with the Tories; the other was to tell the country they couldn’t form a government with either party and let the chips fall where they may. They could have played up the latter as a principled move. But in the general election that would have followed, the Lib Dems would have been severely punished. As badly hit as they were in 2015? Hard to know. Probably not. But you have to ask yourself what future the Lib Dems had after the second 2010 general election with say, 20 or 25 seats, having refused a chance at government.
Before I go there, let’s dispel the myth that the Lib Dems could have done well in a second 2010 election. Had they got 100 seats in the one that actually took place and refused to go in with either the Conservatives or Labour, their pitch could have been strong in a follow up that year. ‘We will not sacrifice our principles,’ Clegg could have said. ‘Back a Lib Dem government.’ And at that point, that wouldn’t have seemed far-fetched.
That same pitch cannot be made by a party that had just been hyped to hell and ended up losing seats. We would have had a zombie parliament for a few months, with the Tories nominally in power with a minority government, until both parties could replace their leaders and have another go. I think the Tories would have won that follow up election, mostly in the same way they won in 2015, by taking Lib Dem seats. It would have been a clear choice between the Tories and another Labour government, and the choice a lot of voters would have made in Lib-Tory seats seems pretty clear. Any idea of a Lib Dem breakthrough would have already been proven impossible, crushing the party’s vote share.
For here’s something not enough Lib Dem activists who claim all would have been well had it not been for the coalition consider – by refusing to go into government after the 2010 general election, throwing the country into chaos for a period, the Lib Dems would have been destroying one of their most cherished ideas. Namely, the notion that coalition and parties working together, usually in a PR voting system, is a better way of doing things. Having been given a chance to form a coalition government and not taken it, they would have been essentially rubbishing this whole plank of their raison d’etre.
To conclude the Lib Dem section: yes, coalition was bad for the Lib Dems’ electoral fortunes, but so would staying out of government have been. Basically, the 2010 general election killed the party. Even after getting the break of the leaders’ debates and subsequent massive coverage, the breakthrough did not occur. The Lib Dems were able to freeze their moment of death in aspic for another five years by going into government, that’s all.
In retrospect, the biggest negative I can lay at the coalition’s door is that it made the Labour party go both crazy as well as become smugly arrogant at the same moment, which time has demonstrated to be a lethal combination. I don’t believe this would have happened without the coalition having come into existence; in fact, my gut tells me that Labour would have avoided their worst excesses if we’d just had a straight up Tory government instead of the coalition. Something about being told by the Lib Dems that New Labour was this right-wing evil force for years and years, only for the Liberal Democrats to then go into government with the Tories, traumatised Labour and the wider left very deeply. They have yet to fully recover, more than ten years later.
The one option the Lib Dems had in government they should have taken in hindsight was essentially merge with the Tories. Take Nick Boles idea and form a National Liberal party that would have taken the Tory whip in exchange for the Conservatives not standing candidates against them. Lib Dem activists almost certainly hate this idea for obvious reasons but think about it: this pact having been formed is the one thing that might just possibly have stopped Brexit from happening. It also would have made the Tories subsequent cultural swing to the right far more difficult. Who knows, the National Liberals might even have split the Tories by now if they tried this out.
My final thoughts on the coalition is this: particularly in comparison to all that has followed it, the Con-Lib government was a good one. Whatever else you can say about the Lib Dems, from whatever political persuasion, at least there’s that to say.