It took five days to create a new government after last week’s inconclusive general election result. That is far longer than we are used to in our first-past-the-post voting system but much quicker than in countries with different systems. We have ended up with the first peacetime coalition to be formed in almost eighty years. But will it work?
Once it was clear that no party had emerged from the election with an overall majority, there were only two possible outcomes available. A minority government might be formed able merely to stumble on until either it was brought down in the House of Commons or until its leader spotted an opportunity to call an election and hope to win a majority. Either way another election would not be far off but there would be no certainty that that election would produce a majority government either.
The alternative was coalition government.
Britain, historians tell us, does not like coalitions. But financial markets do not like minority government and political uncertainty. And with government finances so much in the red and the markets so jittery for other reasons too, hoping a second election might produce stability looked a riskier strategy than usual.
It was for political leaders to choose. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, had said throughout the election campaign that in the event of a hung parliament, it would up to the party with the most votes and the most seats to have the first crack at forming a government.
David Cameron, the Tory leader who had failed by just twenty seats to win an outright majority, took the initiative. Some things – no amnesty for illegal immigrants, no further transfer of power to Brussels, no weakening on defence – were non-negotiable, he said. Otherwise, he claimed, there was lots the Tories and the Lib Dems could agree on. He made Mr. Clegg a ‘big offer’. The Lib Dems could choose to negotiate a minimal deal, keeping the Tories in power as a minority government, or they could come into coalition.
Many commentators thought Mr. Clegg would choose the former. But his party has ended up choosing the latter. Whether this decision will transform British politics or end in tears is what we are now about to discover.
To many people a far more natural coalition would have been between the Lib Dems and Labour, a so-called ‘progressive’ coalition. Certainly more Lib Dem activists regard themselves as closer to Labour than to the Conservatives. Senior members of both parties have in the past been members of the other party: Labour’s Peter Hain was a Liberal and its transport secretary, Lord Adonis, was part of the SDP/Liberal alliance. The Lib Dems’ Shirley Williams was once a Labour cabinet minister and Vince Cable a Labour government adviser. Furthermore, the two parties had cooperated in government before, back in the 1970s.
But the pressures against a Labour/Lib Dem coalition were strong. Many Labour activists loathe the Lib Dems even more than they hate the Tories. Strategists feared such a coalition would be dubbed a ‘coalition of the losers’ and be regarded as a fraud by the voters. And most of all, the numbers did not add up. A Labour/Lib Dem coalition would still have needed the support of a few other MPs to stay in office.
Nonetheless, Labour was not going to give up that easily. Gordon Brown said that if he was an obstacle to a deal, he would resign as Labour leader. And he tried to tempt the Lib Dems by offering immediate legislation to change the electoral system to the alternative vote method; not the thorough-going proportional representation system the Lib Dems have so long campaigned for, but a step in that direction in the view of many. The Tories responded by offering a referendum on AV.
To some, the Lib Dems’ behaviour has seemed unprincipled; to others it is no more than the sort of bargaining to be expected among parties struggling for power. In the end, the Tories’ offer on AV and the fact that a Tory/Lib Dem coalition will have a substantial majority of 77 seats seems to have ensured the outcome.
Both parties have had to make concessions. The Tories have had to give up their promise to raise the threshold on inheritance tax to £1m and the Lib Dems have done the same with their mansion tax and by agreeing that the assault on the government’s financial deficit must begin this year. Compromises have been reached too on immigration policy, Trident and using the tax system to bolster marriage. But the parties argue that on many issues – civil liberties, opposition to ID cards, education and much else, they can easily work together.
Nick Clegg has become deputy prime minister and there will be four other Lib Dem ministers in the new cabinet.
Will the coalition survive? Those who think it will say that the 77-seat majority will be enough to withstand rebellion from disaffected MPs in both parties. Indeed they argue that the very fact of the need to cooperate will pull both parties towards a centre-ground where they are more likely to agree than disagree. Furthermore, such is the financial peril facing the country at the moment, they argue, that neither party will want to risk the opprobrium and potential electoral cost of bringing the government down and precipitating another election.
Sceptics, however, say that it may all be sweetness and light now but that that cannot last. Once the new government gets down to the serious business of cutting public spending, the rifts between them on where the axe should fall could prove unbridgeable. Other issues, like Europe, could become equally divisive. And, say the sceptics, if and when the referendum on the electoral system takes place, the fact that the two parties will be on opposite sides of the campaign could prove fatal.
We shall see. In the meantime, Britain faces an experiment in government new to every one of us. Will it work?
What’s your view? Is a Tory/Lib Dem coalition the best outcome of an inconclusive election result or not? Would a Labour/Lib Dem coalition have been better or not? Would you have preferred a minority government to be formed and a second election soon, or not? Have the Lib Dems behaved honourably in the negotiations or not? Have the Tories conceded too much to the Lib Dems to secure a deal or not? Should Gordon Brown have resigned sooner? And how long do you give the new government?