It remains a sensible working assumption that the coalition will sustain for the full five year term of this parliament. Incumbents are notoriously difficult to prise out of Downing Street. Against all odds (or so it seemed) John Major survived for virtually a full term after the collapse of his economic policy in September 1992; similarly even Gordon Brown could not be ousted from the Premiership in spite of apparently perennial terminal crises in the quarter-decade from October 2007.
In my ConservativeHome article of 26 July last year (‘So What Happens in May 2015?’) I suggested that the logical conclusion of the coalition lasting a full term was some sort of electoral pact, which might involve incumbent coalition MPs or at the very least some of those in highly marginal seats standing as ‘Liberal Democrats with Coalition Conservative support’ (or vice versa).
Politics, as we know, is not always susceptible to such cold logic.
Few can dispute that the damaging breakdown in relations between senior coalition figures during the latter stages of the AV referendum campaign will take time to heal. The cynic in me wondered at the outset whether the public disagreement was synthetic and had been carefully choreographed. When, however, the attacks turned more highly personal, rather than being directed against the respective campaign organisations, it was clear that there was more to this than playing to the gallery of party supporters at election time. Understandably once Chris Huhne and Vince Cable had laid down the gauntlet it would have been difficult for Nick Clegg to stay clear of the fray.
So what happens now?
The first observation is that the Liberal Democrat party is nothing if not a movement for localised political activity and agitation. We Conservatives take it in our stride that our local government base rises and then falls back according to national popularity. The price we pay for holding office as a government nationally and taking unpopular decisions is a dip in support during mid-term local elections.
My suspicion is that however much opinion polls were consistently predicting a Liberal Democrat rout on 5 May, the results have still come as a tremendous shock to their activist base on the ground. There was probably a quiet, complacent presumption that ward-by-ward local Liberal Democrat activity over the years would see incumbent councillors rewarded by bucking the national trend. Doubtless they tried to take credit for all popular coalition decisions, whilst disassociating themselves from the more difficult issues. We should not underestimate the effect this widescale wipeout will have on the morale of sitting Lib Dem MPs, nor on their hard-headed calculation of their personal political prospects after 2015.
The extent of Liberal Democrat reverses at local council level will also have a significant impact on the Party’s cashflow. Already smarting from the loss of almost £2 million annually in ‘Short money’ the Liberal Democrats had become financially ever more dependent upon the tithe they expect as a contribution from sitting councillors from their allowances. The loss of council seats along with substantially more lucrative office-holding roles in local authorities in which they are no longer in full – or part – control will see further erosion in the Party’s already perilous financial fortunes.
As if this were not a depressing enough backdrop the popularity of the coalition as a whole will soon be tested like never before as the impact of the austerity programme on public services begins to bite. As I have written at the beginning of the year the story from now on is of the majority of Britons feeling the impact of a sharply rising cost of living in an era of zero or near-zero wage and salary settlements.
Nick Clegg’s instinct, entirely understandable in the circumstances, will be to be seen as the leader uniquely capable of holding his parliamentary Party tightly together as these storms take hold in the year ahead.
Understandable – but, perhaps, mistaken.
The strain on the loyalties of the fifty-seven Lib Dem MPs may well be tested beyond breaking point, especially for those without prospect or desire for ministerial office. The ‘nudge theory’ that is apparently much beloved by Downing Street strategists holds that incentives drive behavioural outcomes.
So put yourself in the shoes of a sixty-something, centre-left Lib Dem MP, who increasingly disapproves of much of the coalition’s policy programme (and certainly dislikes the vocal local opposition and accusations of betrayal he or she is made consistently aware of in correspondence and at surgeries). Imagine then that this not untypical MP has decided not to stand at the next General Election. Inevitably he or she will ask why not spend the last few years of parliamentary life enjoying the freedom to speak his/her mind openly as an Independent Liberal Democrat on the Opposition benches?
One of the unforeseen consequences of the wholesale change in parliamentary constituency boundaries (which will be published in the autumn) is that there might be an unexpectedly large number of Lib Dem MPs in this category as their current seats are carved up. Typically most MPs in this process can expect to lose 10 000 or so voters from their present seat and gain 20 000 from elsewhere, thereby diluting the impact of incumbency. This aspect of the changes in boundaries is likely to prove especially important to Liberal Democrats.
The other main category of Liberal Democrat MPs whose loyalty will be most sorely tested in the months ahead are those from the 2005 or 2010 intake, who won their seats from Labour in parts of the UK with little Liberal tradition, where outright opposition to Iraq/Afghan military adventures and/or tuition fees was crucial. I suspect several such sitting Lib Dem MPs will feel comfortable defecting in the year ahead to a Labour Party that is moving leftwards and taking up a populist stance in opposition to public sector reforms. We should also not underestimate the impact that a prolonged war in Libya and the Middle East will have on the loyalties of such left-leaning Liberals. All in all, they will quickly conclude that their chances of holding their seats under coalition colours are between zero and nil.
Nick Clegg probably regards any diminution in the parliamentary strength of his Party as little short of a disaster. Yet the truth is that he may soon be facing an unpalatable choice of holding the coalition together or keeping his Party intact……but not being able to achieve both. However, in truth a broadly united party of 45 or so will prove a more reliable coalition partner than a stressed and increasingly disparate group of 57, strained by a constant sense of unease, distaste and betrayal.