The unusual pattern of coalition splits and tensions

The Coalition Government has had its fair share of tensions over major policy areas, including most notably and most recently welfare reform and the future of Trident.

Despite being a coalition, the tensions have not been between the two parties in coalition; rather, they have been along shifting lines that cut-across parties. On welfare, for example, it was IDS, backed up by Nick Clegg and Oliver Letwin, arguing against George Osborne for sufficient funding to make radical welfare reform a genuine reform rather than a glorified word for cuts. On Trident, Osborne and Clegg have been on the same side, with Fox arguing the contrary case. On immigration, it has been Vince Cable and David Willetts making the liberal case.

What to make of these cross-party fault lines? From a narrow short-term perspective, it is a good sign for the coalition’s likely longevity. There have been significant debates within the coalition which are Liberal Democrat versus Conservative, particularly over European measures, and were Conservative versus Liberal Democrat to be the common script for all the big debates in the coalition there would be good reason to doubt how long it will last. That has not been the case, strengthening the likelihood the coalition will last the full five years.

Punch and Judy showThere is also perhaps a broader point here about the often sterile nature of political debate in Britain.

Being in coalition has freed up both Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers to admit when they agree with people in the other party and disagree with those in their own, even if often only in the semi-privacy of Whitehall debates. Without coalition it is hard to envisage nearly as much cross-party agreement being expressed – because that’s not the way politics in Britain is usually done.

Having people take stances on issues on their merits rather than using political party labels as a crude ‘I love/hate that idea’ shortcut regardless of its content is good for getting better decisions and good for having a more grown-up form of politics which doesn’t put off so many members of the public.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • If you look hard you’ll find an unusual pattern in almost anything. The question you should ask is why there isnt a usual pattern of coalition splits you get on any coalition anywhere in the world. For instance, why didnt Nick Clegg publicly rebuke George Osborne for announcing child benefit cuts without putting it to the cabinet? Why didnt he threaten Cameron of consequences if Lib Dems are not consulted on issues – e.g. tax breaks for married couples. Why didnt a couple of ministers from either side threaten resignations? Why there hasnt been a single day when the media went breathless asking if the govt’s going to fall and followed by front page pictures of coalition partners hold each others hands and reassuring that whatever it was has been sorted amicably and blamed the media for overblowing it?

  • Mac, the marriage tax break was in the coalition agreement. I am pretty sure Lib Dem MPs have seen this document

  • Mac is absolutely right.

    Coalitions usually don’t operate like this. They’re (Germany for instance) far more concerned with presenting themselves as consensual debaters of policy. This allows them to work together in the National interest but retain their own identities – vital for actual longevity – as members don’t get offended too much by having to swallow policy they disagree with.

    This incarnation looks, acts and sounds like 2 parties becoming one. Most of the disputes have been Tory v Tory. I originally thought that Clegg had played a blinder in getting “so much power”. Now – its clear that Cameron has the Libs exactly where he wants them.

    As another poster previously said – how cunning that in areas where LD MPs get to abstain – like tuition fees – its a Lib Dem MP running the department, compelled to push the legislation through.

    You can’t keep blaming the media. There’s something that stinks in this Coalition.

  • Tony Greaves 10th Oct '10 - 9:16pm

    You can distinguish between argumetnsd that get into the public domain and others that are taking palce day in day out within the coalition itself.

    But we do urgently need some cleart argumetns that are between Liberal Demolcrats and Tories. If we don’t get such arguments and use them to differentiate us form the Tories we are electorally dooomed.

    Tony Greaves

  • matthew fox 11th Oct '10 - 6:57am

    There is total agreement with the Lib Dems and Conservatives on the need to have 3 million unemployed and a double-dip recession.

    Exports dipped in Sept, eventhough Huhne was bragging about them.

    Glad the Lib dems are so out of touch with reality.

  • @Matthew Fox Don’t be so silly.

  • David Rogers 11th Oct '10 - 2:05pm

    One of the issues raised by Mark’s piece is how to get some of these subtleties into wider public debate, rather than just being discussed by an elite (no offence to any individual………..), metropolitan or otherwise. Are there no journalists/celebrity presenters who can see beyond the simplicity of the old two-dimensional picture? What about the duty to inform and EXPLAIN?

  • “strengthening the likelihood the coalition will last the full five years”

    It’s a little too early to be saying that in my opinion, there has already been major fault lines such as student fees, free schools and ‘some’ aspects of welfare policy etc, and lets not forget a certain upcoming announcement from MR G Osbourne to look forward too, don’t get me wrong, I truly hope the coalition works out, but lets be realistic, how many grass root Lib Dem members/supporters have had personal red lines crossed and then forgiven in the name of unity, as I’ve said it’s only been four months.

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