London — This week saw the beginning of the end of the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition government — Con-Dem to its critics, Lib-Con to most others — that took office barely 26 months ago. It may collapse entirely in the near future; it may stagger on for a year or so, giving way to a minority-Conservative government after a breakup; it may just possibly serve its promised, full five-year term. But it is now a coalition of parties that hate each other deeply and, worse, that cannot find serious policies they can agree to put forward jointly. It is, so to speak, becalmed and in the doldrums, with mutinies and sword fights breaking out between different factions of the crew as officers fear to intervene.
The “immediate cause” (as we used to say in history lessons) of the disputes now raging between the two parties is a parliamentary bill to reform the House of Lords. Americans may imagine that this is a no-brainer: Surely the House of Lords needs reforming to make it more suitable to a democratic age.
Well, there can obviously be two views on that abstract question, but most Tories looked at the actual Lords reform in front of them and (like almost everyone else) concluded that it was, at best, a King Charles spaniel’s dinner. For instance, the proposed new “democratic” element in the Lords would be senators elected once only, for a term of 15 years, by the method of proportional representation. What’s wrong with that? In brief: Senators elected once cannot be held accountable; 15 years gives the last parliamentary generation a veto on this one; electoral reform, beloved of the Liberals, since it would benefit them, was rejected massively in a referendum only last year; and yet even this skewed “democratic” reform would encourage the Lords to challenge the wholly elected House of Commons and impose a kind of constitutional uncertainty on the British constitution. As it happens, it would also give the Lib-Dems a permanent position in government, as the “swing vote” in the upper house.
The bill’s provisions were so silly, in fact, that Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and Lib-Dem leader who introduced its second reading, was made to look foolish by a series of expert interventions from MPs with far deeper constitutional knowledge than his. He didn’t know what he was talking about — even though this bill was among the main conditions (and prizes) he had agreed on with David Cameron when in 2012 they decided to form a coalition and agreed to a set of common policies that they would pursue.
In the last few years, the Tories — and by now not merely the Tory Right — feel that they have accepted a series of unpalatable policies and been prevented from pursuing their own agenda. They sense that this will continue on the topics most important to them — in particular, Britain’s relationship with the European Union — as long as the coalition continues. They were not prepared to support a House of Lords reform that not only damaged the long-term interests of the Tory party but also was apparently not even understood by its principal proposer. So they rebelled and forced the temporary withdrawal of the bill. They are now busy making clear that it will not be acceptable to them under any guise.
Cameron, who promised this bill to Clegg, has lost control of his party. On this and other matters, they will not follow him unless he is able to convince them that he is acting in the Tory interest. He is on parole. Nick Clegg is enraged because, so far, he has been unable to make for the Lib-Dems the long-term political gains that might offset the short-term unpopularity of being in a coalition with a program of fiscal reductions. Before the failure of Lords reform, there was the defeat of the referendum on electoral reform, the measure that had been perhaps the Lib-Dems’ major jewel in the coalition agreement. Now, even if Clegg gets a concession from Cameron, he must assume it might be vetoed by the Tory backbenchers. The coalition is riven. And this fault line was always inherent in the nature of the coalition’s founding.
In retrospect, it is clear that the Tories should have followed the advice given by NR following the inconclusive result of the 2010 election. That was, in effect, to offer the Lib-Dems such unacceptable terms for coalition that their leader, Nick Clegg, would have been forced to strike a deal with Labour under Gordon Brown. Brown wanted it desperately; so did a significant minority of the Lib-Dems; and the overlap between the statist philosophies of the two parties covered about 80 percent of policies. A Lib-Lab coalition would have been a natural result of a “hung Parliament.”
Of course, it would have been a disaster for both parties. A Lib-Lab coalition would have looked like the Lib-Dems’ arranging to keep a discredited and unpopular left-wing administration in power. The Lib-Dems would have hemorrhaged their conservative supporters overnight. To appease nervous markets, moreover, this coalition of the Left would have had to introduce fiscal cutbacks more severe than those actually introduced by the Tories (which, despite their gloomy packaging, were not severe at all). And since the two parties added up to just under a parliamentary majority, their administration would have been vulnerable to defeat over every issue at any moment.
All that the Tories would have needed to do was sit back, attack the weak points of the Lib-Labs’ legislative proposals, point out the divisions between the two partners, and wait for that fatal vote of no confidence and an early election. By now they would have formed a Tory-majority government supported by about two-thirds of MPs.
Why didn’t they? For the party as a whole, the explanation is that they were too hungry for power to wait. They wanted Labour out immediately — and if the price of immediacy was the sharing of power with the Lib-Dems, then so be it. For the Left of the party, the incentive was that they would really rather share power with Lib-Dems than with the Conservative Right. The Lib-Dems and the Conservative Left were the same sort of people — mildly pro-Europe, mildly social democratic, less Blairite, and determined overall not to challenge the metropolitan liberal consensus on moral issues (since to do so would make them unpopular at desirable dinner parties). They anticipated that life with the Liberals would be quite tranquil, even pleasant.
For David Cameron himself, the calculation was personal and simple. If he did not become prime minister right away, he would cease to be the leader of the Conservative party almost as quickly. Not only had many Tories disliked the strategy of Cameronian modernization as directionless and feeble in the first place, but the brute fact was that it hadn’t worked. The Tories lost an election, with a manifesto that was pure Cameronian – that by any conventional standard should have been an easy win for them. Cameron himself was therefore vulnerable.
With great dispatch, Cameron, who is a gifted, charming, and ruthless politician, dispatched his aides to negotiations with the Liberals. His instruction was simple: Make a coalition deal at all costs. They did. This was bad for the Tory party but good for Cameron, and — until this week — good for the Lib-Dems and their leader, Nick Clegg.
Now, we are heading into uncharted waters. At present the long-term winner looks like Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, who can foresee himself entering 10 Downing Street simply by following the tactic of watching the coalition implode and its members turn on each other — a tactic that Cameron could have employed with far greater prospects of success (and that today he may wish he had).
There are a lot of potential losers: Cameron, of course, and his presumed successor as Tory leader, Chancellor George Osborne, both of whom have bet the farm on a coalition that looks like a sure loser. Nick Clegg, too — though he may cut his losses and go to Europe as one of Britain’s commissioners before the roof falls in.
Maybe the really big losers, however, are the Lib-Dems as a whole. When this game began in 2010, the Lib-Dems were the pretty girl with two suitors. But they overplayed their hand, asked for too many presents, yielded too few favors, and constantly made goo-goo eyes at Labour. It wasn’t attractive behavior. Besides, frankly, at 8 percent in the opinion polls, they’re not looking any younger.
Next time both suitors may decide that bachelorhood is better than the kind of uncivil union on offer.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.