Ming Campbell says Coalition should be broken up “without recrimination” ahead of the 2015 election

mingSir Menzies Campbell MP has given a wide-ranging interview to Total Politics magazine in which he says some pretty controversial stuff.

A civilised dissolution

The first is that he wants to see the Coalition break up in a civilised manner ahead of the 2015 election to avoid acrimony and recrimination:

The ministers will have to keep going to the very end. Why? Because the country has to be governed. But I think we should accept that the point’s going to come at which politically we may be together governmentally, but politically we’re going to start – well it’s started with differentiation – moving away from each other. And we should do that without recrimination or acrimony or intimidation or anything of that kind. Why? Because it is very damaging for both parties if it breaks up in a row, or a series of rows.

But more to the point, it would have a considerable impact on the creditability of coalition. If people enter into it and then by the end of it get at each other’s throats, that would be the worst possible outcome, in my view. So I adhere to my view, six wise men and women, in a closed room, with instructions not to come out until they have a solution.

While I’m sure we would have no problem thinking up six people we might like to lock in a room, I am not sure that we would get the sort of civilised behaviour required to bring about the end of the Coalition in such a manner. Especially when David Cameron might be able to control his front bench, but we know that his right wing back benchers are unlikely to comply.

Do more before becoming an MP

He thinks that would-be politicians should work outside politics before standing for Parliament.

I was 46 [when I was elected]; I’d done about 18 years at the bar… I prosecuted serious crime, I defended serious crime. I did a lot of matrimonial work in the early days. By doing that, one had a pretty good idea of the kind of stresses and strains which people have to face in their daily lives. I thought that equipped me quite well for being a member of parliament…

I think it’s better for people to have gone off and done something else because you can then bring a bottle to the party, as it were. There’s a line, I think it was CLR James, famous Caribbean philosopher, who said, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ And so you could turn that round – ‘what do they know of politics who only politics know?’”

He muses: “The capacity to stand back and get things into proportion – that comes with experience. You’re better able, I think, to apply these two criteria in political life if you have some external experience. But we have come to this notion that you get a politics degree, you come and work as an intern, then you get a job in parliament, then you go and work for one of these public affairs companies and you fight a hopeless seat, maybe twice, and then you start looking for a so-called safe seat. That’s the kind of step-by-step progress.


His connections in the Labour Party (he talks about having 4 or 5 conversations with Gordon Brown over the weekend following the 2010 election) are clear, but they are not immune from criticism. There is more to be told about that parliamentary vote on Syria, he suggests:

Though he had “some reservations” about the recent mooted Syrian intervention, he voted for the motion to intervene, but notes Labour’s “influence” over the vote. “Someday the full story will be told,” he comments mysteriously, “but I have reason to believe through hearsay just how much contact there was between the two sides and how much the government motion reflected what it understood Labour required before it could support it.

MPs’ Pay

While he’s not complaining about MPs’ salaries himself, he thinks that there is an issue:

People who’ve got a high-earning level, a high-earning capacity, I don’t think are going to continue to give that up in return for the House of Commons. I don’t want to get into the argument about salaries, but when I first came in, I was told my salary would be roughly equivalent to that of a general practitioner in a reasonable practice. Not stratospheric, not low. That’s about £100,000, now salaries have fallen back.

I can’t complain about that because at any stage, I, like others, could’ve packed my chattels and left. So I don’t complain about it, but it is worth pointing to the fact that in that respect, people’s expectations have got quite badly dented.

We were also told we’d be [paid] equivalent to a head teacher of a medium-sized comprehensive school. Again, that kind of benchmark has fallen behind. The truth is there’s never a good time to raise parliamentary salaries, but if you don’t build on an annual mechanism like the rate of inflation or the existing public sector increase, then inevitably MPs are going to fall behind. And then, as I say, any effort to address that with a large increase, like IPSA’s proposing, is hugely controversial.

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  • I don’t understand this part:
    “The ministers will have to keep going to the very end.”
    I mean, I understand the rationale, even if I don’t agree with it. I just don’t see how it fits with the rest of the programme. It would work if the ministers were just a junior adjunct of the party. But they aren’t — they’re its leaders, and would be perceived as such even if they didn’t have day-to-day direction over the course the party takes in national politics. How can they “keep going to the very end” in coalition *and* lead the party against their coalition partners? Or is the party supposed to end up with two parallel leaderships, one in, one out of government? How can a party pull halfway out of coalition? If there were a clever, feasible way of doing that, I’d be glad to hear it; but it seems to me that in practical terms it’s an all-in or all-out proposition.

  • peter tyzack 4th Jan '14 - 8:27pm

    re the dissolution… what he fears isn’t going to happen, they are two teams working side-by-side, as they have been all along. That will continue to the end of the Parliament. The problem has been with the public perception, or rather with the media portrayal of it, trying to suggest that we have somehow joined forces. Our MPs should have been far more overt about the differences from the beginning, but perhaps the seamless façade was needed for a media (let alone a public-) that didn’t understand how a coalition functions.

  • I don’t understand why we fell for Cameron’s trick and agreed to a fixed term parliament in the first place. Surely we have trapped ourselves in this horrible right-wing coalition? Wouldn’t we have been better off giving ourselves the option to find an excuse to call for a vote of no confidence and end it early? I’m sure our Labour friends would have been pleased to help us in our hour of need!

  • Ming discusses the issue of ending the coalition in a rational and sensible way. I hope that others will follow his example.

  • I don’t understand this part:
    “The ministers will have to keep going to the very end.”

    Well, it’s to do with that business of the Queen’s government having to be carried on, which happens even after a general election until the point where the outgoing prime minister tenders his resignation.

    I suppose what Ming Campbell means is that for some unspecified period before the election no new political decisions should be made and that ministers should confine themselves to keeping the government going in an uncontroversial manner.

    All a bit meaningless, unless he’s willing to say how long before the election the coalition should go into ‘sleep mode’.

  • David Allen 5th Jan '14 - 12:59am

    Ming said “The ministers will have to keep going to the very end. Why? Because the country has to be governed.”

    The trouble with this is that, as an election looms, each party will be frantically jockeying for advantage, and seizing on day-to-day issues and their handling by government ministers as opportunities to exploit errors, or actions which can be painted as errors. In such a frenzied atmosphere, we would be bound to see each side trying to trip up the other, while loudly crying foul about bad behaviour by the other side.

    If we are to disengage the coalition, I think at the very least it would be necessary to ask the Tories to take over all ministerial roles during the campaign period itself (and preferably that means three months rather than the nominal three weeks.) We could put it to Cameron, publicly, that our two parties cannot simultaneously fight an electoral war and also collaborate normally in government. He could hardly then refuse our offer to take the hit and be the party who temporarily disengaged from government in order to avoid that major problem.

    But are we intending to disengage the coalition? Ming clearly thinks we should. My money is that for Nick, that will be “over my dead body”, and there will be no disengagement.

  • Steve Comer 5th Jan '14 - 2:37am

    Re Sue Render’s comments. I think you’ll find it was the Liberal Democrats who wanted fixed term parliaments, which I think we’ve argued for since Thorpe was Liberal leader, but certainly since the SDP was formed. It is a sensible policy, the old power of the Prime Minister to fix a date which suited his party was undemocratic. Fixed terms also encourage parties to reach workable agreements on governance (as mostly happens in local government and in the European Parliament).

  • Not sure about locking six men and women in a room, it must surely be a breach of their Human Rights! (humour)

    More seriously, there are significant rifts between Nick Clegg and Michael Gove / Theresa May. The suggestion to bring an end to the coalition ahead of the election is a good one. There is no longer a trusting working relationship.

    I agree with the comment by David Allen ‘If we are to disengage the coalition, I think at the very least it would be necessary to ask the Tories to take over all ministerial roles during the campaign period itself (and preferably that means three months rather than the nominal three weeks.) ‘

    However, it is unlikely that Parliament would get very much done anyway in the last three months. Some legislation might pass in a 6 month period, so why not make the disengagement period 6 months? That way we have clear blue water between us, and the crazy ideas of the Tory far right will not contaminate our brand. For our own survival as a viable party we have to do this. If our current declining poll rating is reflected in the election we may have only about 25 MPs in 2015 according to Electoral Calculus. Three months would not be sufficient time to turn our fortunes around. Six months might be. This is serious folks.

  • @ Sue Render

    It was more likely the Conservatives would have moved to call an election sooner, which given their superior resources they would have won or at least taken large numbers of our sitting MPs, given that the act would have been viewed as being pro-Labour. At any time after the end of 2010, our number of MPs would have been decimated.

    “Surely we have trapped ourselves in this horrible right-wing coalition?”

    Surely walking out half way through would have destroyed any chance of coalition government again (Liberal Democrats can’t be depended upon for stable government) and would simply have handed back power straight to Labour while massacring our number of MPs and denying any chance for the Lib Dems’ policies (Green Bank, regional investment, pupil premium, £10,000 personal allowance etc. to take effect).

    It would have been a massive, appalling own goal.

  • Any talk of “ending things early” is insane, just when the economy is taking off and living standards are likely to start recovering in the run up to 2015.

    We would be burdened with all the difficult choices we had to make with regard to the public finances while not receiving any benefit at all from the reputational effect of an improved economy. Instead, we would make it certain that the Tories would walk away with all the benefit.

  • I have just seen the latest Lord Ascroft poll on Political Betting site:

    Look beyond the UKIP headline, have a look at the relative popularity of coalition figures:
    Con – LD coalition 15%
    Lab – LD coalition 20%

    I think that this really underlines the comment I made earlier. We HAVE to disengage from the Conservatives in plenty of time before the election, and make ourselves distinct. A coalition with Labour would probably suit us better, given our SDP heritage. Any thoughts? Agree? Particularly as the Conservatives are trying to make electoral alliances with UKIP. No way that we could get into bed with UKIP. They are anti-immigrant and anti EU.
    They are also anti-green measures, which help the planet and help the economy to grow.

  • The disengagement will happen in the election campaign.

    I’m not sure what “disengagement” is supposed to mean in the context where our ministers remain in government. And if they resign, aren’t we just leaving the Conservatives just going to get any credibility for the burgeoning economic recovery? As Ming defines it, I think disengagement has already happened.

    As long as we make it clear that we are equally critical of both Labour and the Tories and have a distinct policy platform from both, that is the only way to handle it.

  • RC, I think that Ming is spot on when he states: ‘But more to the point, it would have a considerable impact on the creditability of coalition. If people enter into it and then by the end of it get at each other’s throats, that would be the worst possible outcome, in my view. ‘

    So to avoid getting at each other’s throats, we have to disengage in plenty of time. David Allen suggests 3 months, I am suggesting 6 months. We can discuss what the optimum duration is, maybe 4 or 5 months. Nevertheless we do have to disengage.

    David Allen is spot on too. It means relinquishing ministerial posts to the Conservatives. Just for the last few months.
    This has got to be better than the outcome that Ming wishes to avoid. We need to demonstrate to the electorate that we can behave in a dignified way. Can you see how important that is? Ming can, we can see that is true.
    I am 100% with Ming on this one, and 100% with David Allen.

    RC, can you see that we are not ‘walking out half way through’, that would understandably attract criticism. A few months is not the same as two and a half years. We would lose credibility if we had walked out half way through the 5 year period, I agree with you on that. However we are not talking about the same thing, so I do not think you should worry. Parliament does not get very much done in the last few months anyway, what is the big deal?

  • Jayne Mansfield 5th Jan '14 - 10:45am

    @ RC
    I acn see that you are equally critical f Labour and he Tories, but despite reading the posts on Liberal Democrat Voive, Iam unsure what your distinctive olicy platform is.

    Before the last election I thought I knew, but now I really have trouble distinguishing Liberal Democrat beliefs from a mish mash amalgum of left wing ( so called compassionate Tory) beliefs and moderate anti-authoritarian Labour beliefs. I am not being rude, I simply do not understand what is distinctive about Liberal Democrat values and beliefs any more, or even whether those who call themselves Liberal Demcrats know either.

  • Jayne Mansfield 5th Jan '14 - 10:47am

    Sorry for typing errors, my eyes are particularly tired today and typing particularly strssful

  • Jayne, hope your eye strain improves. My web browser enables me to increase the text size, hope that is a useful suggestion.

    I think what is key about our party is as follows:
    The Liberal Democrats are building a fairer society.
    Fairer taxes
    A fair chance
    A fair future
    A fair deal – by cleaning up politics.

    Cleaning up politics means no more broken promises. Not necessarily everything works out as intended unfortunately, that is the reality.

  • Trevor, could you please post a link to your article, or paste the text of it here. You have given it some thought, it is best to read what has been written in a calm and considered way, rather than in a panic when things are going wrong now.

  • Paul In Twickenham 5th Jan '14 - 11:40am

    “He thinks that would-be politicians should work outside politics before standing for Parliament.” Ouch! Direct hit on all three party leaders. The creation of a political class that look the same, talk the same, went to school together and none of whom has ever done a real days work in their lives makes a mockery of the idea of “representative democracy”.

    A few months ago various people on this website (including myself) expressed concern about the risk of a property bubble, triggered in part by George Osborne’s blatant politicking in creating “The Bank of You and Me” to supplement “The Bank of Mum and Dad”.

    The argument is – of course – that Osborne is looking to create a property bubble to generate a feel-good factor in the middle-classes timed to coincide with the 2015 election. But with the final figures for this year released now (+11% nationally YoY) and showing London as *not* the property hotspot (that honour went to Manchester with a 21% YoY increase) you have to wonder if the whole thing hasn’t gotten a bit ahead of itself with the real risk that the bubble might pop too soon, especially if interest rates start to rise.

    That sounds like a black swan, no? What does Osborne do then?

  • What happens in countries with a longer relationship with coalition? We aren’t the only bunch who’ve had to think of this. And what do you we know or think the Tories are doing to prepare for the end times of 2015?

    Relinquishing ministerial posts to the Conservatives sounds like a terrible idea, though that’s probably just a gut reaction. They still wouldn’t have a majority, but there’s a lot a government can do administratively – could they screw some of our positions or implement some nasty populism?

  • Jayne Mansfield 5th Jan '14 - 11:54am

    @ Joe king
    Many thanks for the top Joe. Its age related macular degenration that I have and I have magnifying glasses etc.

    The problem with your list is that every party would claim to want fairness. People have different ideas of what is fair though.

    Is it fair that high earning people have so much tax taken from them than others or is it only fair that those with the most pay the most to keep Britain a civilised society etc.

    Personally, i hear the word fairness most when family members complain of the changes in family allowance. They have had theirs stopped because there is a single earner earning just above the cut off point but they have friends who between them each earn just below the cut off point, ( jointly almost twice as much as the single earner family but still in receipt of family allowance.

    I am sure that I could think of better examples given time but my poinremains the same, ‘fainess’ means different things to different people.

  • On Syria, I think Ming rates his cross-party intelligence too highly. “Someday the full story will be told,” he comments mysteriously… Wasn’t it blindingly obvious that neither Miliband nor Cameron knew what motion they could get through, and that positions were shifting right up to the moment of the vote?

  • @ Paul In Twickenham
    “That sounds like a black swan, no? What does Osborne do then?”
    Exactly! More importantly, if Paul in Twickenham is right in his prediction, what do **we** do then? We are in this coalition too. Osborne does not live in a vacuum and Danny has been Chief Secretary to the Treasury since 2010. So, not sure I agree with the idea of us supporting the Tories until the bitter end. It might just rebound on us. We have a chance to escape before the mud sticks and I think we should go for it.

  • Jayne, sorry to hear about your eye condition. My uncle has it too, he had to give up driving which made life difficult for him when he was living in a rural area. He had to move to a town in order to get to the shops.

    It is difficult to avoid being tarred with the same brush as the Tories. The child benefit qualification criteria do not seem so fair in the case that you describe. On the other hand, raising the tax allowance maybe helps those on lower incomes, although I am not sure that VAT rising helps. Sorry I have not done the sums to see whether the VAT cancels out the allowance rise. Does anybody here know the figures?

    Fairness is a difficult thing to quantify. There are so many calls on a limited pot of money. Are the Conservatives less fair than Labour? I am tending to think so. I do not know whether we should form a coalition with Labour or the Conservatives next time. I have posted some thoughts elsewhere on this website, but nobody commenting really knows what is likely to happen next.

    Sorry if this is not a very clear reply.

  • Trevor, I found the title of your article, but the article itself is not available online as far as I can see.

    ‘Clegg needs a Willie’ – Trevor Smith (a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords) says it’s time for the leader to quit the coalition or quit himself, but wonders whether he has a candid adviser.’

    Maybe the critics were put off by the forthright title?
    Clegg does indeed need a candid adviser now more than ever. He is getting into a real mess with Gove and May, this will not end well unfortunately.
    Is it too late to retrieve the situation?

  • As Ed Wilson says, what do they do in countries like Germany where coalition has been the norm for many years? Why do we have to attempt to solve these problems from first principles when there must be lots of international experience we can learn from? Anyone out there know what other countries do?

    My own inclination is to doubt very much whether the Lib Dems can hope to gain any electoral benefit from withdrawal from the coalition prior to the election. Passing government posts over to the Conservatives seems to me frankly a ridiculous suggestion. Bear in mind that some of the contributors to this thread think we should not be in coalition in the first place.

    Prior to the advent of fixed term parliaments everyone was suddenly thrown into election mode by the calling of a general election by the Prime Minister – usually allowing only a very limited period for the campaign proper (let’s face it there is permanently an election campaign of sorts going on). That does not apply any more so should there not be an agreement between all parties to designate a specific period for what I am calling the election campaign proper. At that point the gloves would be off but of course the coalition would still technically exist in order to carry on government functions. Is there anything in the legislation which introduced fixed-term parliaments dealing with the pre-election arrangements?

  • Denis, you state that you think withdrawing from government is ridiculous, but you have not argued why you think so. Do you have any rational or logical reason for your assertion? Thankyou.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Jan '14 - 2:37pm


    ” what do they do in countries like Germany where coalition has been the norm for many years? ”

    They have proportional representation systems, that’s what they have, so that the minority coalition party realises that they don’t have to do too much and they still get back in, anyway, don’t they – until last year, of course, when the FDP were filleted for failing to make the 5% threshold because of their complacency/stupidity.

    Coalition participation when you’ve got FPTP is an entirely different kettle of fish in which ‘wipe out’ for the minor partner is by no means completely ‘off the cards’.

  • Paul In Twickenham 5th Jan ’14 – 11:40am
    “He thinks that would-be politicians should work outside politics before standing for Parliament.” Ouch! Direct hit on all three party leaders. The creation of a political class that look the same, talk the same, went to school together and none of whom has ever done a real days work in their lives … …

    Spot on, Paul. This is heightened by the hollowing out of political debate and a lazy corrupt media, who also went to the same schools and live in the same metropolitan bubble. It is more than ten years since the Anthony Sampson book ‘Who runs this place?’ catalogued the dangers of the small elite who control business and politics in London.
    Liberal Democrats used to offer an alternative but The Coalition has co-opted the leaders of our party into that tiny and undemocratic class.

    I hope that there will be success in the struggle to take the party back for ordinary members and the ordinary people they represent.

  • Sorry for delay in coming back to answer points made above concerning my post – there is life beyond LDV!

    My reasons for describing advocacy of Lib Dem ministers handing over their positions to Tories as “ridiculous” are –
    1. After all we have endured to persuade the electorate that coalition government works and that the Lib Dems are the party who have mainly made it work we would suddenly look like we were throwing it all up in the air in a huff. We would be taking away our bat and ball but leaving our wicket highly exposed.
    2. Might there not just be statements from some of the new Tory ministers welcoming the recognition by the departing Lib Dems that it is one-party government that is the sensible norm to put before the electorate – and oh by the way they were somewhat taken aback to find the departments in a bit of a mess which they would try to rectify to some degree before the election?

    I think my use of the word “ridiculous” was highly restrained on my part.

    As to Germany etc. – one might say Ireland as well – of course PR makes coalition and genuine search for consensus more likely but that begs the question as to how exactly they manage government in the run up to an election. Does anyone have the answer to that?

  • Paul in Twickenham – Absolutely agree on all points.

    Osborne’s blatant politicking is creating a massive contingent liability – i.e. one that lands in the taxpayers’ lap if the whole bubbly thing goes bad. This should be included in the government accounts but I’ll bet it’s not or only in a very fine print footnote on a page deep inside. Does anyone know how it’s recorded?

    Separately, I doubt that Ming’s idea of a breakup “without recrimination or acrimony or intimidation or anything of that kind” is doable. Any number of Tory backbenchers and some ministers are perfectly happy to indulge in such practices even while the coalition remains in full swing. A breakup will surely be seen as the perfect opportunity ahead of the election to blame all the manifest failings of this government on Lib Dem intransigence, foot-dragging or whatever irrespective of the facts or whose policy it was that failed.

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