Much attention has been given in the news to Nick Clegg’s and David Cameron’s remarks on the future of the Coalition. Both were keen to emphasise that the Government would stick together until 2015. I’m never sure it’s wise to assert these things so strongly when there was never a realistic prospect of a split anyway. The attempts of some in the Conservative Party to deflect attention from their own torrid internal relations by spreading nonsense about a plot to unseat Nick Clegg, or suggesting his jacket is on a shoogly peg if the European elections don’t go well are transparent mischief making.
I thought there were some interesting nuances in the language Nick used today, particularly ramping up the idea that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are “staunch opponents” rather than two parties working together. Suits me, I must say.
Two staunch opponents, working together to find answers to the most critical questions facing Britain today, pioneering major reforms that will stand the test of time. That’s what this Coalition has always been about – and it’s what it must continue to be about.
Conservative backbenchers have not shown themselves at their best over the last few weeks, to put it mildly. The likes of Gerald Howarth and Sir Tony Baldry have put paid to any claims that the Conservative Party is modern. Howarth’s comments about “aggressive homosexuals” belongs in a 1970s sitcom – and not a good one at that.
Today felt a bit like Nick saying “It’s ok, Don’t worry, there’s still a responsible adult around to look after things while the toddlers squabble.” He gave three reassurances:
- The Coalition will last until 2015
- Our priority is the economy
- We will remain anchored in the centre
I have never thought leaving the coalition was a realistic option, for the very reason Nick pointed out:
The idea that the Liberal Democrats could suddenly win back those people who have never liked us going into government with the Conservatives is nonsense. As if we could pull the wool over people’s eyes, using an early exit to somehow erase the previous four and a half years.
And, frankly, that isn’t what we want. The Liberal Democrats look forward to fighting the next election as a party of government, on our record in government, and with a distinct vision of our own for the next government – having seen this one through until the end.
And in this section, he made it clear that he didn’t expect the next to years to be plain sailing – and nor were the Liberal Democrats going to take all the blame for the compromises made. Maybe we’re going to get a bit more assertive about the daft Tory ideas that we’ve stopped. I’m sure there must be more than restricting child benefit to two children and taking Housing Benefit from under 25s.
It won’t all be plain-sailing.
Some of the most divisive issues – like the UK’s role in Europe – are not going to go away.
We also have to be realistic about the other challenges that come with the later stages of Coalition. As we head towards the election there will be increasing pressure on David Cameron and myself to act as party leaders as much as PM and DPM: pressure to put party before nation. And I don’t pretend I won’t relish the moment I can hit the campaign trail on behalf of the Liberal Democrats in the run up to the General Election.
But here’s the bigger truth: whether you are the larger or smaller party, the fact is governing together in the public interest carries a cost. Making compromises; doing things you find uncomfortable; challenging some of your traditional support – these are the dilemmas the Conservatives are coming to terms with, just as my party has had to.
There was plenty to satisfy “stronger economy and fairer society” bingo players today, but also that “governing in the centre ground” phrase was back. I’m not sure it’s either helpful or accurate to suggest that Ed Miliband’s Labour party is in any way left wing. You certainly can’t trust them with the purse strings, but they’d faint if they met a proper socialist. There’s some mixed messaging, too. Either Ed Balls loves the City and heads there on prawn cocktail charm offensives or the party is left wing. You can’t have both. Surely “they screwed up the banking system and spent all the money” is enough?
He also highlights welfare fraud and immigration abuse, both issues of the right with which both Labour and Tories are associated. I wish we could just stick to being Liberal Democrat about them. There is no evidence to suggest widespread fraud in the welfare system and surely we should be sorting out our disgraceful immigration system by making it fairer.
He topped and tailed his speech by talking about the parliamentary game playing of the last few weeks. Everybody knows that it’s not the Liberal Democrats who have been showing themselves up, as our Nick Thornsby wrote so eloquently on Conservative Home.
One final interesting thing – how come he’s started using the term “gay marriage?” Maybe I’m so attuned to the phrase “equal marriage” that it just sounds strange.
There was a lot of sensible stuff in the speech, particularly on the economy. I’ll let Nick have the last word:
Our priorities must be people’s priorities: boosting business, creating jobs, helping with the cost of living.
On the big ticket items the Coalition parties must continue to find a way forward together. Just as we have done on cutting income tax; dealing with the deficit; creating a million new jobs; transforming the education and welfare systems; providing unprecedented guarantees – £50bn worth – for infrastructure and new homes; greening our economy; creating record numbers of apprenticeships…
And there must be no doubt that this Coalition remains united on the end we all seek:
A stronger, rebalanced economy, built on sound public finances, with opportunities spread to every corner of the UK.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings