GE2015 minus 36: no, no, No, No, NO, NO! (oh, ok then…)

Posted: 1 April 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: , , ,

Here are some recent quotes:

Britain is on the road to recovery and nothing we do should put that recovery at risk.” – The Prime Minister

“[a hung parliament would lead to] bickering, argument, drift and dithering.” – The Leader of the Opposition

You probably remember hearing them on the news or in an interview or… No, wait, silly me. That was what Gordon Brown and David Cameron said just before the 2010 election.  It’s the second quote in which I’m more interested, as the first is the kind of thing you’d expect any Prime Minister to say just before an election, and I’m sure that were I to look at quotes from Prime Ministers from the 1950s, they’d say the same.  

But until 2010, for the most part, there hadn’t been a realistic chance of a minority government arising from an election for at least a couple of decades, although John Major’s government was technically a minority government from the middle of 1996 through until the date of the 1997 general election. A coalition was even further from most people’s thoughts. The last ‘official’ supply and confidence arrangement was in 1977 and lasted for about a year, the so-called “Lib-Lab pact”. 

And then there was 1997. While it wasn’t discussed outside parliament that widely, it’s now known that Paddy Ashdown, the then leader of the Liberal Democrats and Tony Blair, the then leader of the opposition, held talks regarding a possible coalition in the weeks leading up to the 1997 election. These came to naught when Labour swept to power with a majority of over 160, and to be frank, the Lib Dems were an irrelevance to Blair from that moment on.

So, the last formal coalition was… the 1940 to 1945 government, and given that the UK was involved in the Second World War at the time, I’m not sure that the benefits and disadvantages of coalition government were much on people’s minds. Before that, the last peacetime coalition government was the one that ran from 1916 to 1922. And again, even with the ever present civil service, I’m not entirely convinced there was anything particularly useful to learn from that one, not for the public, nor for the politicians running for office.

So of course Gordon Brown and David Cameron railed against coalitions before the 2010 election; they were less than forthright about its benefits, and downright brutal about its inferiority as a form of government. Despite pretty much every opinion poll indicating that the result would be a hung parliament, neither party leader believed that the election would bring anything other than what the first past the post electoral system had delivered time after time: one party with a working majority, the other party forming the official opposition, the Liberal Democrats the biggest party of ‘the rest’, with SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP mopping up a few seats here and there.

 Well, of course they thought that; why wouldn’t they think that? And both Brown and Cameron could – with only a tiny bending of the truth on the latter’s part – say that anything else hadn’t really crossed their mind while campaigning for government. And, though they fell upon coalition government  on 7th May 2010 with an appetite that could best be described as ravenous, they’d have had every excuse to think – and campaign – otherwise before the election.

 Well, they haven’t got that excuse this time, have they? Not only did the coalition last, it lasted the full five years, confounding everyone who predicted it would collapse in six months, or a year, or two years, or three years at the very outside. Sure there were resignations from the government, but not really that many, and Cameron suprised me by having so few Cabinet reshuffles. I genuinely thought that there’d be at least one more.

Small digression: There’s only one person in the government, besides Cameron and Clegg, whose remaining in office the full five years didn’t surprise me in the least: George Osborne. And for that, you can thank Gordon Brown. Well, him and Tony Blair. By leaving Brown in situ for the full length of Blair’s reign premiership, Blair caused a huge problem for any successor. It’s forgotten by many now that prior to Blair, the Chancellor of the Excehequer was, while an important and senior member of the Cabinet, was only an important and senior member of the Cabinet. He – and it’s only ever been a ‘he’ – served at the Prime Minister’s pleasure, and could cease to serve at that same pleasure. Atlee had three Chancellors (one resigning after inadvertently leaking Budget secrets to a journalist, how times change), MacMillan had three, Wilson had three, Heath had two, Thatcher three, Major two… and then Blair had one, Brown had one and Cameron’s had one.

Were a Chancellor to resign, for any reason, even a personal one, it would be seen an admission of fiscal failure, a failure moreover of treasury and government policy. Were a Prime Minister to sack his Chancellor for any reason, even if he did a Wilson and swapped his Home Secretary and Chancellor, it would be similarly interpreted that the resignee had failed.  

So I believe we’re stuck with Osborne as long as Cameron’s Prime Minister. 

Cameron’s done something worse though. He’s left people utterly unsuited to their departments in place for fear that any move would be seen as admission of failure on the part of the incumbents. 

Back to coalitions, their anticipation and their formation. I still think, on the whole, that majority government is the ideal. Notwithstanding my oft stated views that manifestos are no longer fit for purpose, at least people know what they’re voting for*. The one thing you can guarantee with coalition government is that no-one’s happy. The larger party have every right to be pissed off that they’ve had to forsake some of their policy platforms. More people voted for them than anyone else, so…? And the smaller party will always get the shitty end of the stick. Backroom deals are no way to form a government. But we do insist on governments being formed quickly, don’t we? 

(* One argument against that is, of course, would I have rather had a majority Conservative government for the past five years? Because anyone who thinks it would have made no difference is daft. The Conservatives gave up some things in the coaltion agreement and anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t compared their manifesto and the coaltion agreement.)

And everyone who said the right wing press were wrong to have a go at Gordon Brown for staying as Prime Minister when he had a constitutional obligation to do so until it was obvious his party could no longer command a majority? Just watch those same people attack Cameron for doing exactly the same thing if similar circumstances exist on 8th May.

And they will exist, won’t they? You know it, I know it, the pundits know it, and this time – beyond peradventure – it’s going to be another hung parliament. The only questions are which is the largest party, and which can, eventually, command a majority… if only for confidence and supply.

There are plenty of reasons to pretend to the public that a working majority is possible for a single party. So many that it seems trite to mention any of them, but one argument against is, I guess, that I would prefer that politicians don’t lie to the public, don’t deliberately state things they know are untrue to people whose votes they’re after. 

Of course the main parties (by which I now mean the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP) are actively preparing for confidence and supply at the very least and possibly full coalition. The smaller parties are also drawing up their demands… but I suspect those parties, and for this, I’ll include the SNP again, are going to be very, very disappointed.

Why? Well, take a look at that link, but the main argument stands up as far as I can see. Are the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens (assuming Caroline Lucas is re-elected) going to vote in support of a Tory government? Of course not. Not if they’re going to remain true to their voters, policies and public statements. So, why does Labour have to give them anything? They’ve already said they’ll do anything to avoid David Cameron remaining Prime Minister. They’ve given away their sole bargaining. Unless… unless… the SNP would be prepared to actually abstain and then when Cameron gets back in, say to their supporters, “Look, Labour couldn’t win the election, so they’re a busted flush… for fuck’s sake, will you vote for independence now?”

Coalition. It’s a tricky business, you know.

And if you think I’m being over conspiratorial, that that couldn’t possibly happen… well, just ask yourself whether you ever thought, five years ago, that Nick Clegg would be Deputy Prime Minister?

Until tomorrow.

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