Cameron to “rule out second Lib-Con coalition” claims Telegraph. It may be a bluff but that doesn’t mean he won’t be forced to do it.

Today’s Telegraph splashes on the claim that David Cameron is preparing to rule out the possibility of a second Coalition with the Lib Dems if the Tories are the largest single party but lack a majority:

The Prime Minister wants to make a commitment in the Conservative Party election manifesto not to sign a second power-sharing deal with a smaller party in the event of a hung parliament next May, it is understood. Instead, a Conservative party that won the most seats but lacked a Commons majority would attempt to rule as a minority government, a course that would almost certainly lead to its early collapse and a quick second election. Mr Cameron’s allies believe the high-stakes promise would confront voters with a stark choice: an all-Conservative government or rule by Labour, possibly in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. “He’s very clear, he doesn’t want another Coalition,” a source close to Mr Cameron has told The Telegraph.

When I read this last night, my initial instinct was to be dubious. It smacked to me of David Cameron trying to pacify his troublesome right-wing backbenchers by re-inforcing the idea he’s only sticking with the Lib Dems because he has to, not because he prefers dealing with Nick Clegg to Peter Bone.

After all, why would the Prime Minister want to tie his hands ahead of a general election? If I were Cameron and wanting to ditch the Lib Dems come what may, I wouldn’t pre-announce that I’d vetoed the idea of a second Coalition, which risks appearing petty and tribal.

No, here’s what I’d do… First, wait for the election result, and see what options are available. Then, if a Lib-Con coalition is possible, I’d say it’s conditional on the Lib Dems agreeing to a raft of populist Conservative policies I know Clegg & Co could never agree to (more welfare cuts, more immigration restrictions, withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights). That way my rejection of a Coalition would 1) look principled, and 2) put pressure on the Lib Dems to defend our policies on these issues.

It’s what – from a right-wing Tory point of view – Cameron should have done in May 2010, instead of putting forward his “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems. No-one can say for sure what would have happened in a second election in October 2010, but I’d be amazed if the Tories hadn’t won an outright majority in such circumstances.

But that was then and this is now. If Cameron now were to try such a bluff and call a quick second election in 2015 would the voters reward him – at the THIRD attempt – with an outright majority?

And that assumes he would be able to call an election. If Cameron lost his first Queen’s Speech, wouldn’t Her Majesty be likely to call for Ed Miliband, to see if he could form a government? And wouldn’t the Lib Dems be inclined to give him a chance, whether in formal coalition or by loaning him the votes through a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement?

The only thing I can be sure of with such a chain of events is that David Cameron, who would by then have been Conservative leader for 10 years, wouldn’t be able to remain in that post.

It’s because pre-vetoing a second Coalition puts Cameron at the mercy of events that I’m dubious of the Telegraph story and can’t help thinking it’s a bit of spin to keep his troops happy. The trouble for Cameron, though, is it raises the stakes. If it was bluff and he has no intention of ruling out a second Coalition he will have to explain why to his MPs. And so far this parliament, they have been a lot more successful than he has in winning the battle of wills.

From a Lib Dem perspective, I’d be relaxed about such an announcement from David Cameron. It’s true that the Lib Dem negotiating hand in the event of a hung parliament would be stronger if both Labour and the Tories were equally likely partners.

But set against that loss are two gains.

First, the Lib-Con Coalition does seem to have run out of road. It’s hard to imagine how a further five years in power together could be sustained – there just aren’t enough shared policy aims left.

And secondly, it will re-inforce the public impression of the Tories as a party drifting further to the right away from the mainstream. I think a lot of sensible Tories would worry where their party would end up without the Lib Dems able to offer some moderating influence.

So I’d be surprised if Cameron were to use the next Tory manifesto to rule out a second Coalition – but simply by raising the possibility he may find he has little choice but to follow through on his own bluff.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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36 Comments

  • A desperate roll of the dice.

    “but I’d be amazed if the Tories hadn’t won an outright majority in such circumstances.”

    Again? You’re rolling that one out again? Who exactly would have transferred their vote to the Tories? After six months in office we had tuition fee riots and the sight of gleeful members of the government celebrating attacks on the public sector and welfare recipients. How can you believe that the Tories would have won an election against that backdrop and with Brown no longer in charge of Labour? The opinion polls at the end of 2010 show Labour closing the Tory lead and then overtaking them – a position they have not relinquished since.

  • “It’s true that the Lib Dem negotiating hand in the event of a hung parliament would be stronger if both Labour and the Tories were equally likely partners.”

    A hung parliament is unlikely enough, but a hung parliament in which the third party could give a majority to either of the larger parties is almost unprecedented. It has happened only twice since the First World War – both times were in the 1920s, during the transition from the Lib/Con two-party system to the Lab/Con two-party system.

  • I think you’ve missed the point. Cameron wants to paint a vote for the Lib Dems as a vote for Miliband. The coalition will already have convinced a great many people that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for the Tories. Combine the two and you squeeze the third party vote.

    This isn’t about coalitions, plans for the future, or running a minority government; it’s about trying to frame the election as a straightforward fight between Labour and the Tories. The two-party system is a big help to the two major parties.

  • Leader of political party goes into election saying he will promote the cause of his party.
    Leader of a political party says he would like his party to have a majority after the next election.
    Leader of a political party says exactly the same about possible coalition as he said before the 2010 general election.

    So what ?

  • See we have lost a couple of Midlands councillors this week, including another defection to the Greens in Solihull!!
    The other in Stapleford is now an Independant.

  • Peter Davies 25th Feb '14 - 9:36am

    If Cameron doesn’t get a majority next time, he won’t even be leader of the Tory Party let alone minority prime minister.

  • Unless people think the Tories are going to achieve the overall majority they couldn’t manage in 2010, it really looks as though they have resigned themselves to being in opposition in the next parliament.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Feb '14 - 9:50am

    John,

    I suppose the ‘so what’ – is that it highlights precisely which leader is *not* going into an election :
    saying he will promote the cause of his party.
    saying he would like his party to have a majority after the next election.
    saying exactly the same about possible coalition as he said before the 2010 general election.

    There are ‘rules of thumb’ in campaigning, but policy wonks have never got that . Tragically it is good campaigners who over considerable time win the access to power that wonks then squander with their aloofness. Campaigners are close to the people: wonks are close to their lower parts.

    This is why the wonks can so casually discard the support of whole sections of the public: students, health workers, local government workers, teachers, civil servants, alarm clock Britain for that matter, and with Centre Forum’s chuntering about National Insurance, it will be the elderly and the saver.

    It is actually quite amazing that there appear to be 8% of those polled who still say they would vote for us if there was an election tomorrow (though the raw data is lower) and of course in 60 to 70 parliamentary areas our support will be bolstered by the dedication of our MPs and their teams.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Feb '14 - 10:03am

    Peter, is that not another reason why Cameron would be keen on doing a deal?

    Prime Ministerial patronage is enormous. Once you are in you are there for (it should be) five more years.

    The lessons from local government over 40 years and in Wales and Scotland is that we should campaign with all our might until 10.01 on election night, then, if there is no overall control, negotiate the best deal.

    Everything which reduces the potential to be able to deal with more than one Party reduces our influence in such a situation. The fact that Cameron would know (from Ted Heath if he needed any evidence) that, as you say, not coming out with a deal ends his career in politics makes him easier to ‘deal’ with.

    Of course, our recent flirtation with Labour (which does nothing for that potential relationship) has brought about this response.

    I

  • Bill , yes it is astonishing that that the opinion poll rating is as high as 8%. I guess that a chunk of that 8% is the generation to which I belong; We voted for the first time in the early 1970s, we have never voted anything but Liberal or Liberal Democrat. Now in our 60s and with a loyalty to the party that we have always supported and now not quite believing what has happened over the last six years. Not quite believing how all that good work of all those thousands of councillors and activists has been frittered away by opportunists who captured the top of the party for their own ends.

  • The fact that Cameron would know (from Ted Heath if he needed any evidence) that, as you say, not coming out with a deal ends his career in politics makes him easier to ‘deal’ with.

    He also knows that coming out with a deal ends his career in politics.

    Cameron, personally, has nothing to lose at this election by not considering scenarios other than total victory. He either wins an outright majority for the Tories or he is deposed in a leadership challenge. He will not get another second chance.

  • FormerLibDem 25th Feb '14 - 12:33pm

    That headline sounds as if it could have been written by Alex Salmond!

  • Bill le Breton 25th Feb '14 - 12:57pm

    Tim, I’m intrigued.

    It is Friday morning after polling day and (just as a hypothesis using a simplified model) Labour has 300 Seats Conservatives 300 we have 50 and there are no other parties, How does Cameron get deposed before he can negotiate? Who stops him negotiating?

    Why would anyone in his cabinet risk not supporting him that day and in the three or four days that followed? Sure there could be critics on the back benches or even in the constituencies, and perhaps the odd junior minister who thinks s/he’s for the chop anyway so willing to carp, but wouldn’t they all be keeping their powder dry just in case he managed to do a deal either with sufficient Liberal Democrats to get past the 325 mark or if Labour decided they would abstain on a Queens Speech (as the Tories did in Feb 1974) they’d be falling out with the PM who remains in No10 and no doubt soon sets about rewarding those cabinet and lower ranking ministers who kept faith with him. Garden Parties for all the Constituency Chairs, the odd gong here and there, business knighthoods and peerages just around the corner. You know the score.

    I just think you under rate the power of the Prime Minister’s patronage. and therefore the time that every leader has to negotiate following a so-called inconclusive election, especially given the fixed term Parliament’s act.

    All rather academic because I still think the T’s will win for the same reasons that they won in 1983. But given the above type of result how do you see Cameron’s demise?

  • But given the above type of result how do you see Cameron’s demise?

    I already said: he will fall to a leadership challenge. It doesn’t have to happen before he negotiates; it can happen afterwards.

    It only takes 15% of conservative MPs to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to force a vote, and then he has to win over more than half of the parliamentary party. That he will not be able to do, having just signed another deal with the Liberal Democrats against the wishes of most of his backbenchers. He will be out on his ear.

    Unless you’re going to claim that the Tory party wouldn’t ever depose a sitting Prime Minister against their will but, well, history doesn’t back you up there.

  • >> he prefers dealing with Nick Clegg to Peter Bone

    Did you write this after the news about Bone broke, Stephen? 🙂 Cammers’d certainly prefer Clegg to Bone today, what with Bone having been investigated for benefit fraud, and the CPS considering prosecution (according to the mainstream media). But I see your point. Hell, Cameron probably made the call to the benefit cheats hotline himself…

  • Frank Booth 25th Feb '14 - 2:38pm

    Bill – 40 odd MPs write a letter and Cameron is toast. Difficult to work out what is going on here. Like trying to work out the machinatiomns in the Kremlin in cold war days. First of all, is this really what Cameron will do? If it isn’t, it’s a poor piece of news management from his people. I don’t think he can face both ways on this – giving the impression to his own side that he will not do a coalition deal and at the same time making it look to the rest of the country that he will. could be that we see a rowing back frothis position, that the media ‘misunderstood’ the briefing they got or Cameron was just expressing his frustration at those dastardly Lib Dems. Showing the grassroots that his heart is on their side.

    If he is genuine about it, then what’s the strategy. I can only think it must be to say to people in Tory/Lib Dem marginals, a vote for the Lib Dem is a vote for Ed Miliband. They tried the same thing in 2010 of course against Gordon Brown and it didn’t do much good for them. So perhaps more likely, this is another (doomed?) attempt to get Ukip voters back by saying a vote for Cameron next time will mean a true Tory government with no Lib Dem contamination. However as others have alluded to above, perhaps Cameron realises his own party won’t let him do another deal with the Lib Dems anyway, so he might as well rule it out now if he thinks it improves his chances of winning next time (debateable).

  • Bill le Breton 25th Feb '14 - 3:00pm

    Four days after a General Election and whilst the PM is driving back from kissing hands at Buck House pledging that the ‘recovery and rebalancing of the economy will continue’, 40 Tory MPs sign a letter to initiate a leadership contest while the stock market and the currency crash, and the Fixed Term Parliament Act ensures that the Parliament will continue.

    What are you smoking?

    In 1990 they had over a hundred seat majority and potentially two more years before needing to call an election.

  • Not in four days, but certainly within a hundred and four, there would be a contest.

    The backbenchers do not like Cameron. They would be willing to put up with Cameron for the sake of being in power, but it is now clear that they do not regard a coalition as ‘being in power’. They would rather be honestly in opposition than in government with their hands tied by the Liberal Democrats.

    So either Cameron delivers them the power they want, by winning the election properly as he failed to do last time, or there will be a reckoning.

    This is one chance to redeem himself for, as they party sees it, failing to get them into power last time, and he knows it. If he muffs this he doesn’t get enough chance.

  • This is assuming Cameron signs the deal without putting it to a vote of the parliamentary party, of course. If he does put it to a vote — he doesn’t have to — then it will be defeated and as that would be pretty much the same as a vote of no confidence in his leadership he would have to resign.

    Either way he’s out. Just one will put him out of his agony quicker.

  • Tim you said — ” Unless you’re going to claim that the Tory party wouldn’t ever depose a sitting Prime Minister against their will but, well, history doesn’t back you up there.”

    . I think you will agree that any history of the Conservative Party shows a remarkably consistent approach when it comes to self interest, power and patronage. Whilst the Conservative leopard never changes it’s spots it is usually prepared to paint those spots any colour you like if it means it can cling on to power.

  • Whilst the Conservative leopard never changes it’s spots it is usually prepared to paint those spots any colour you like if it means it can cling on to power.

    Is that not what I wrote? I’ll repeat:

    The backbenchers do not like Cameron. They would be willing to put up with Cameron for the sake of being in power, but it is now clear that they do not regard a coalition as ‘being in power’. They would rather be honestly in opposition than in government with their hands tied by the Liberal Democrats.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Feb '14 - 4:42pm

    Tim, I think Frank B above is much nearer the mark. This is about positioning with the electorate not positioning within his Party – just as Clegg’s recent overtures to Labour are about trying to firm up tactical voters (who incidentally he spurned earlier in the Parliament when he thought merely being in Government would see the creation of a new Core Vote). Funny what the approach of an election does to dreams.

    The difference between the position in 2010 and that in 20105 is that in another balanced Parliament the survival of both Cameron and Miliband will depend on them securing a deal with sufficient other Parties to gain a majority in the House. Of course either could chose to abstain on the first Queens Speech so permitting the other to form a minority Government, but whichever did that would be exposing himselves to a leadership challenge in short order.

    But positioning is no substitute for solid, inspiring integrated campaigning.

  • paul barker 25th Feb '14 - 4:54pm

    Its a measure of how fractured The Tory Coalition is, between a third & ahalf of their Party are as close to UKIP as Cameron. When The National Coalition formed there was a lot of talk about how it would split The LibDems, in fact its had that effect on The Conservatives instead.
    If this batty threat was carried out I think a lot of potential Tory voters would be put off, most people dont like being threatened.

  • This is about positioning with the electorate not positioning within his Party

    The manifesto commitment to single-party government is, yes.

    However, it remains a simple fact that if Cameron doesn’t win an outright victory at the next general election, his days as Conservative party leader are numbered.

    This announcement, therefore, is about trying to win that outright victory by making the general election into a straight choice for the voters between himself and Milliband (AKA, the Tories’ greatest electoral asset).

  • Also in the telegraph article was “Whitehall officials say the Government is becoming “dysfunctional” as political differences between the parties grow, preventing ministers agreeing any new policies to implement before the election. That raises the prospect of a becalmed Government marking time until the election …”

    I think this is a good thing. In the distant past governments didn’t pass laws and make changes all the time they just managed the existing system and there is no harm in that, if the alternative is more Conservative policies we don’t agree with.

    It is also surprising because I believe there are still things in the coalition agreement that could be done.

    Cameron once promised that his MPs would have to agree to any future coalition agreement. Bill le Breton makes a good case that there would be a large minority (those in government positions) who would be likely to vote for the agreement. There might be some MPs who thought it highly likely that during the next parliament they would get a government position and there would be a few who would support the coalition as the best way of achieving some Conservative policies. Therefore it is possible that a majority of Conservative MPs would vote for a new coalition. If there was a large minority against the agreement I think it would then be a good idea for Cameron to put it to the membership in some way – either a vote at a special conference or a members vote. If the membership agreed to the new coalition then it would be likely that even if there was a new leadership election Cameron would win it.

  • If this is what “hands-tied” Tories look like, what would Tories given free rein be?

  • peter tyzack 26th Feb '14 - 10:13am

    Bill le Breton is right (did I say that?).. we campaign for an overall majority until election night.. THEN we talk about possible deals.. all this talk is bad for the soul. We have the policies for government and that should be our message, not ‘we are hoping to play second fiddle again’.. why should we set out our stall on the basis of supporting one of the other parties just because it suits the media and the chattering classes? Both the old parties are lacking in principle and direction, that is our USP. We should be aiming to be in a position where if we fail to get a majority we look to see who is prepared to join us, not the other way about.

  • Peter Chegwyn 26th Feb '14 - 11:06am

    It’s no surprise that Cameron & Miliband want a return to two-party politics with the Lib. Dems. sidelined as an amusing but irrelevant sideshow.

    What IS surprising is that Clegg continues to peddle as his main theme a pro-coalition strategy that shows no sign of winning public support.

    Why on earth would Cameron or Miliband or their parties or their party supporters want to jump into bed with Clegg, someone so toxic that he has a poll rating of minus 57 and his party has a poll rating of 8 per cent, trailing 4th behind UKIP in almost every poll this year.

    We need to provide much more positive reasons for voting Lib. Dem. than simply saying we’ll jump into bed with whoever else will share the duvet with us. That strategy is a loser before the campaign even starts.

    It’s no good having a USP if no-one buys it.

    Being unique, by definition, can leave you sidelined on your own.

    It’s very cold and lonely under a duvet when all your prospective partners have already exited left and right.

  • richardheathcote 26th Feb '14 - 11:30am

    @ Peter Tyzack ” Both the old parties are lacking in principle and direction, that is our USP. We should be aiming to be in a position where if we fail to get a majority we look to see who is prepared to join us, not the other way about.”

    Do you honestly believe this? I get the impression people have their head in the sand.

  • Chris Manners 26th Feb '14 - 12:27pm

    “Bill le Breton is right (did I say that?).. we campaign for an overall majority until election night.. THEN we talk about possible deals”

    Trouble is last time you did a deal that people didn’t expect you to do. Not because it was with the Tories but for the stuff you chucked away- electoral reform, tuition fees, delaying cuts.
    Not to mention all the rest that followed.
    And you’ve given the job of the manifesto to David Laws, who seems very happy you chucked all that stuff away.

  • Richard Harris 27th Feb '14 - 12:45am

    @ peter tyzack

    If you think the LDs can stand on the theme of keeping to principles than it will be a very sharp shock. The party is in a very bad way, and will appear worse as the campaign goes on. You can’t argue that you can form a majority government (nobody believes that) and you can’t get away with suggesting that there are principles you won’t drop even “in the national interest” (because nobody will believe that either given previous experience). What’s left is “here’s what we’d like to do, but everything is open to negotiation with anyone willing to listen”. Hardly a strong message! You can’t stand arguing for a continuation of the lib-con government because the con part has disowned you. Your only chance is to drop Clegg a.s.a.p. With another leader there is a slim chance that people will believe the lib dems have principles that are non-negotiable.

  • Richard Harris 27th Feb '14 - 9:55am

    @ jedibeeftrix

    “we campaign for an overall majority until election night.. THEN we talk about possible deals”

    Why? That’s fantasy politics. It also has the drawback that nobody knows what you would actually do in power? How is that approach improving democracy? In practice it just means promise everything just to get a seat at the table, then ignore the electorate for another 5 years.

  • jbx: re “it is a hung parliament, not a balanced parliament” – actually it is No Overall Control (NOC).

  • richardheathcote 27th Feb '14 - 12:59pm

    jbx: re “it is a hung parliament, not a balanced parliament” – actually it is No Overall Control (NOC).

    does it really matter what its called?

  • jedibeeftrix 27th Feb '14 - 1:08pm

    I stand corrected, as apparently is bill. 😉

    @ Richard – politics on the margins in 20c made sense with the rise of the labour movement, in c21 it speaks of a lack of ambition.

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