John Pugh MP writes… “Calm Down, Calm Down!” – keeping Coalition partners happy

Perhaps it comes naturally to someone born a Liverpudlian but — without donning a shell suit (a la Harry Enfield) to cry “Calm Down, Calm Down” — the media village, so anxious for a scrap and the possible downfall of the Coalition, need to do just that.

The remarks of Vince Cable and other Lib Dem ministers (whether public or private), the rumblings of back-benchers, the cracks in cabinet unity – they all come with the territory.

There are those in the Whips’ offices of all parties who dream of colleagues meandering contentedly like a flock of docile sheep through the same voting lobby on every occasion.

There are those in the press offices of all parties who want nothing more than the bleating of on-message soundbites on every possible occasion. However, that’s not real-time politics. That’s certainly not Coalition politics!

There are arguments between politicians that should ideally take place in private, and arguments that must be aired in public. It is hard for cabinet ministers to do the former, and easy for backbenchers to do the latter. That, too, is normal.

Coalitions work off the back of personal chemistry, shared objectives and political necessity. Unity of purpose helps, but cannot always be guaranteed. However, what must be there, whatever the inherent tensions and indeed because of them, is competent government based on detailed planning and clear evidence. No rabbits, few hats, no panic.

Most, if not all, of the hiccoughs in the Coalition’s progress so far have been generated by occasional rushed, hard-to-explain actions rebounding to no party’s credit. The Schools Sports Partnerships is the latest and most universally acknowledged instance. True, the current financial plight of the country requires determined quick action, but there are other fears and motives around.

It has been seriously argued by some that the Coalition Government’s programme, based itself on a hastily established Coalition Agreement, must be very quickly put into action through legislation — even at the cost of leaving rough edges to be revisited at a later date. “Use political capital while you still have it,” they say.

One could point out, though, that hastily implementing a hastily-constructed Coalition Agreement, leaving a trail of issues to be resolved, is probably not a great way of gaining a reputation for competent government. Nor for that matter is it a great way of ensuring the desired harmony between coalition partners

Countries should always fear government by ‘old men in a hurry’. We, for obvious reasons, need not — but perhaps we should be on our guard against anyone airily offering us ‘revolution’, ‘transformation’ ,’liberation’ or the weary old cliche of ‘step change’. Anyone more interested in the headlines than the stubborn, practical realities of everyday life should go and work for a newspaper.

It may be a very ‘conservative’ attitude, but I do think there is an appetite now for humble, boring, serious, prosaic and — above all — efficient government. As we enter a new year (in the words and accent of Gary, Terry and Barry), “Calm Down, Calm Down!”

* John Pugh is Lib Dem MP for Southport.

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24 Comments

  • Grant Williams 22nd Dec '10 - 6:41pm

    “Old men in a hurry”? Wasn’t Disraeli’s description of Gladstone “an old man in a hurry”? Hmmm….

  • Steve Comer 22nd Dec '10 - 8:48pm

    Its not just the media village “anxious for a scrap and the possible downfall of the Coalition” is it?
    If it was then surely the Daily Telegraph would have sent undercover reporters to entrap Conservative Minister’s too? (Liam Fox’s views on the coalition and postponement of Trident replacement would have just as interesting as Cable’s comments)..

    No the reality is that some of the national press have an agenda of wanting to bring down the coalition in the hope that a more right wing Tory Government might replace it. They haven’t worked out how such a right wing government might ever win a majority in a General Election of course, but then consistency has never been their strong suit.

  • I note honesty wasn’t on your list of things needed for a coalition to succeed.

    If Cable and others (and maybe more to come as a result of this sting) had been honest with the public, who put them into office and pay their wages, there would be no story. If you disagree with a policy, say so. You can still vote for it as part of collective Government. Voting against, and therefore resignation, is not needed except on points of overiding principle. Surely that is the price of coalition?

    For coalition to work effectively there should be more opportunities to abstain, and more acceptance of difference. Clegg is convinced arguments need to be kept secret, this leads to Ministers being forced to be hypocrites. What this country needs, and was promised by Clegg, is a grown up style of politics where politicians tell the truth always, not just to giggling girls in their surgeries.

  • So, what you’re saying is, Coalition government is essentially and vitally dishonest, and we should just not get so upset? I would like a government based on sincerely held values – not your bland functional management speak of ‘shared objectives’. Your manifesto was your mission statement, which you have torn up to get into power.

  • Well put Steve

    I cannot still believe how the LD are keeping moving straight ahead without deviation when all is crashing around them. I really do not think they see what is happening and how it looks from the outside.

    I though some of the Labour carrying on was bad but ……..

    I would implore the author and other MP to tray and rescue the party before it is too late – you have lost the ability to say you are new brooms and any pretence at being centre left/social democrats (which is where I sit) has been exposed. The LD senior cabinet ministers are now Clegg (clearly a Tory), Alexander (a joke – back to PR at the Cairngorms) and Cable (broken). If Laws is brought back then all is lost in my view.

    There is still time to show some backbone and independence

  • Keith Browning 22nd Dec '10 - 9:44pm

    Vince sounded as though he was answering questions on Newsnight not talking to constituents in a surgery. The whole event seemed all rather planned – too good to be true !

    Perhaps he had already been outed in his dislike of Murdoch – and this will now bring the whole matter out into the open and make the process far more transparent.

    Either our top politicians are very, very stupid – or there must be a planned agenda here somewhere.

    Nothing that gets printed by the press as Coalition ‘revelations’ comes as much of a surprise, anyway.

    Rather like Wikileaks – they just reveal what most people believed was going on – or is that just the cynical amongst us who don’t believe a single word made in official statements by governments.

    It just seems like the bickering of the rich kids and the chattering classes and has little to do with the way most of the over 60 million of us think.

    I started off as a Tory at 18, and was one of the first ever to vote at that age. By 25 I was a supporter of the Green party and stuck with them for over ten years. Then it was the Liberals and then the Lib Dems.

    Now I’m nearly 60 and instead of returning to being a Tory in my dotage, I’m thinking of founding a Communist Party section in the heart of Tory Surrey.

    Power to the People !!!

  • Nick (not Clegg) 22nd Dec '10 - 9:46pm

    As an old Liberal, I agree with bazsc

    Yesterday’s Cameron/Clegg press conference was nauseating. Is it the new tv Xmas double act to fill the slot vacated by Morcambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies? Juist as ludicrous, but not so entertaining.

    What other delignts have our tv screens in store? Oh yes, Cable on “Strictly Come Dancing”: an opportunity for the coalition to be judged a disaaaster.

    We really must get rid of Clegg: and soon. Six months of this nonsense has been more than enough; the prospect of another 4.5 years does not bear thinking about.

  • Steve Way, bazsc, Nick not Clegg,

    Please read the post carefully.

    “hastily implementing a hastily-constructed Coalition Agreement, leaving a trail of issues to be resolved, is probably not a great way of gaining a reputation for competent government”

    “There are arguments between politicians that .. must be aired in public. It is hard for cabinet ministers … and easy for backbenchers to do”.

    The language may be gentle and cautious, but I think the guy has effectively grasped some crucial points. Good!

  • @David Allen
    “The language may be gentle and cautious, but I think the guy has effectively grasped some crucial points. Good!”

    Here’s hoping…

    The trouble is the Clegg has zero credibility left and has no intention of allowing his ministers to bring their concerns to the public. It’s almost like he wants to destroy the party and the hopes of those who wanted something better.

  • Philip Rolle 22nd Dec '10 - 11:42pm

    In tonight’s Telegraph instalment Heath and Baker say they are still against tuition fees….despite voting for them.

    To me, their credibility is shot. How can one believe anything either of those two Lib Dems say, given that they vote for things they say they are against?

    It is one thing thing to make a mistake and overpromise something. But these two Ministers look as though they want to take contradictory views on the same matter at the same time.

    Dear me!

  • It’s a bit rich for some to suddenly convert to the strategy of open disagreement when it was Nick and his Thatcherite Orange bookers who were the ones who refused to countenance doing anything that wasn’t in lock step with Cameron until now. Until long after the damage has been done and it is far too late.

    Vince and so many others on here were advocating this strategy long ago.
    A strategy howled down by the right wingers at the time as disloyal and wrong.
    And if you listened to Vince’s conference speech you might have realised that’s why it was so popular.

    Then again some people are just too terrified of upsetting Murdoch and the sad truth for them is Vince is still going to be far more trusted and liked by the public than Nick ever will be now. The majority of the public don’t hold the same Thatcherite love for Murdoch that some misguided people do.

    Nick won’t be fighting the next election so after all this at least those around him and cheerleading Nick will have stop pretending all is well with complacent polyanna spin that fools nobody. We knew there were Ministers (never mind all the MPs and grassroots) deeply unhappy with Nick and his decisions and now we have the proof.

  • Hi David Allen

    I read the paragraph you highlight and he is of course correct – I never really understood how the coalition agreement came into being so quickly and has suddenly become more sacred than the 10 Commandments!

    I am hoping that some of the MPs are starting to realise the damage that is being done to their party at the moment – from the outside it is looking like a joke – is this the same from the inside?

    The mess with Cable this week just makes it worse – the idea that you have gained from him being ‘brave’ is an illusion – he was not brave as that would have needed him saying he never intended for his comments to become public but in the end they represent his opinion about Murdoch and he resigns from the cabinet

    The coalition agreement is doing nothing but harm – remember the Tories need LD votes – make them pay for them with better policies – sorry but an AV referendum which the Tories will campaign against and some improvements in civil liberties (I am still dubious about this – the Tories were never that hot on liberty) is not enough for keeping Cameron in power.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 23rd Dec '10 - 7:47am

    David Allen,

    And your point is …?

    Once again, I agree with bazsc. It looks exactly the same from where I sit: (although I’m not sure whether that still counts as “the inside”) and I’m not sure that “joke” would be my chosen word. Danny Alexander in the Cabinet is quite laughable but, for the rest, I’m afraid it’s gone beyond a joke.

  • Outside the political bubble, who gives a stuff about most of these ‘revelations’, I wonder?

    I imagine most people are more interested in Christmas/snow/ice etc than what some MP they’ve never heard of thinks of the chancellor, or vice versa.

    Lib Dem ministers don’t really like Tory ones – less of a shock and more of a relief, I’d have thought.

    And as long as the DT only goes for Lib Dems, surely it gives the appearance to everyone like a vendetta, whatever tha actual agenda (which I suspect IS Tory paper wants all-Tory government, because that is rather a given).

    Blair and Brown weren’t exactly a love-in, of course. How many people like all their work colleagues? You don’t have to like someone to be able to work with them.

  • @Cassie
    “You don’t have to like someone to be able to work with them”

    I don’t really think that is the point. It is more that they are stating in public that policies are the right thing for the country and the best option whilst stating the opposite in private. No one expects them to all get along, but we do not expect hypocrisy either.

    Not liking Osbourne is not news. I imagine it is an opinion shared by most non Tories who see, hear or meet him. He seems to have the ability to portray all that is bad about conservatives in one person……

    Mark Pack has previously called on this blog for a more robust approach to the coalition, something I would whole heartedly support. I would add the caveat that we should be able to rely on the public comments of LD Ministers to be accurate and trueful. For example, if they are supporting a policy because they are in Government but actually has deep reservations say so.

    I will never be able to trust Tory ministers to be honest, but I am now in the same place with Lib Dems. This needs to change if the party are not to implode as I am not alone in thinking this, hence the plummeting polls.

  • Foregone Conclusion 23rd Dec '10 - 1:26pm

    @Steve Way

    “If Cable and others (and maybe more to come as a result of this sting) had been honest with the public, who put them into office and pay their wages, there would be no story. If you disagree with a policy, say so.”

    That would mean the end of collective responsibility. Is that what you really want? Is that what the country at large wants? As a liberal I applaud openness in government, but only up to a point. The fact is that some things said behind closed doors must stay behind closed doors. We’ve seen how the media, bred on the ultra-maschismo of single party government, react to these piffling indications of difference. If you want to try that bold experiment – good luck. It hasn’t been tried since the early 19th century.

    And Mark Pack – tsch! Nobody who has a go at ‘Orange Bookers’ has actually read the Orange Book. I don’t think it would hurt them to do so – they might find that it’s not, for the most part, the radical Thatcherite screed they think it is…

  • Foregone Conclusion

    Bit of a cop out there – the Coalition is made up of two distinct parties and from my view as an outsider I have no confidence that anything a Lib Dem says is the truth.

    It has always been this way with cabinet responsibility but the differences are usually more subtle and major disgreements often lead to resignations and sackings – see what was the reaction between the behavious of Cook and Short over Iraq. Ministerswho disagreed with the party policy would also normally be hidden away to avoid them being exposed to having to intentionally lie about their opinions and they would certainly not normally be responsable for a policy they disagreed with.

    The nature of this Government means that the LD cannot hide from questions and so are having to ‘lie’ whilst defending coalition policy when we all know that they disagree fundamentally. In the case of Cable do I even doubt that he believes in the tuition fees legislation that he is steering through Parliament.

    I would much more prefer the opportunity to see more honesty from the LD – your approach is seeing them squeezed from all sides and trust is being lost. The public are a bit more intelligent than you give them credit for – LD voters probably more than most – and would allow some slack

  • @Foregone Conclusion
    “That would mean the end of collective responsibility. Is that what you really want?”

    Yes, in it’s current form. In fact the coalition agreement made arrangement to do just that in the case of tuition fees and some cowardly ministers still voted for it and praised it in public whilst privately stating opposition.

    But where an agreement does exist, Ministers should be able to argue against a policy but still vote for it, clearly stating they do because of collective responsibility. That is a reality of coalition. It would then be real issues of principle that require a resignation. That is no different to how the real world works. Try trusting the voters, or was open Government only an aspiration when it was someone else at the cabinet table.

    You seem to suggest that the “new politics” expects ministers to lie as much as the old politics. If plurality os ever to work people need to know who stands for what. Otherwise expect a continuation of being accused of being closet Tories.

    “Is that what the country at large wants?”

    Again yes, otherwise they would have given one party, and one manifesto, and one set of principles (remember those) a majority in parliament.

  • Foregone Conclusion 23rd Dec '10 - 2:25pm

    bazzasc – I think we’ve been spoilt with thirteen years of governments where: (a) disagreements were not widely aired and hammered out in the way you see inside government now, and; (b) there weren’t actually that many disagreements to begin with. We knew broadly that John Prescott agreed with Blair, who (despite differences of personality) generally agreed with Brown. Historically, this hasn’t been the case with our one-party governments of the past – just look at someone like Tony Benn in the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1970s, or the ‘wets’ in Thatcher’s cabinets. Disagreement within government is actually a healthy feature of British democracy, and I don’t think it’s much greater than in the examples I just mentioned. Of course, there is a point for each minister – and in this case the party – where there’s a line that cannot be crossed, which is what Vince Cable said. Already, we’ve seen two Lib Dem PPSes resign over tuition fees, and I would be astounded if there weren’t more in the years ahead. Ultimately, it’s a trade-off between what good you can do in government – and what bad you can prevent – and what you have to accept in return.

    I don’t think this trade-off is immoral or corrupt, but I do think that the pose of agreement is more transparently false than in one party governments, where we’ve just fought a general election on two different manifestos. I think there are ways we can alleviate this – I think that Cowley Street’s PR should start emphasising the nature of Coalition as a deal, emphasising more where we’ve moderated the Tories and our differences with them even if, for collective responsibility reasons, we can’t call it a victory. Vince has actually found ways already to indicate that he was fighting for Lib Dem policy before the Telegraph filmed him saying so explicitly (remember him speaking our against a too restrictive immigration policy, or his ‘spivs and chancers’ speech at conference?) However, ultimately we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place – between accusations that we’ve become Tories, and accusations that the Coalition is insincere (or, if you’re Ed Miliband, both at once). We’re finding that difficult to navigate at the moment.

  • Hi Foregone Conclusion

    Thanks for the reply. Excuse me for being other than intelligent with my response but I have drunk too much to reengage with the discussion and will try to have sobered up by the morrow.

    If, by the chance, I am still rubbish have a great Christmas and New Year all – see you again in 2011

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