The ticking clocks and “year to go to the election” brain dumps have made the final lap of the coalition government hard to miss: there appears to be universal agreement the general election will be held on Thursday May 7 next year.
This, in itself, is a remarkable feat. The cross-national portents weighing against the government, at its outset, were stark. Complex feats of conflict management have been achieved because the government followed through with the basic stuff, either by design or accident.
Plenty of variables and innovations, all empirically proved to make coalitions last, have been adopted and subsequently enhanced the coalition’s lifespan.
The act of creating a comprehensive coalition agreement – regardless of whether the Liberal Democrats were sold a pup was one of the factors that ought to have helped the coalition function smoothly, encompassing as it did the innovation of the “Quad” as the driver of the coalition and arbitrator of disagreements. Add to this an allocation of ministerial portfolios which left Liberal Democrats strongly invested, at least in terms of number of bodies and, importantly and often overlooked, the fact that date for the next general election was already long set, should have made for a stable administration.
Yet this date, and the continuation of the government, has always been set not in reinforced concrete, but instead a rather wobbly, yellowish-blue jelly.
The next inevitable part of the electoral cycle, from now until the election, will be the deliberate wobbling of this jelly. The Institute for Government’s timely report on practical challenges facing the final year of coalition government, outlined areas where increasing politicisation will mean channels of information between parties become squeezed and the arteries of government clogged. This is both a symptom and a cause of the rationality of government being superseded by political parties’ survival instincts.
In the pressure to achieve two conflicting aims – forming and maintaining agreements with other parties, and pleasing one’s own voters – the electoral calculations increasingly loom larger. Disagreements are hammed up, rather than swept under the carpet. The government becomes as leaky as Edward Snowden playing centre-back for Liverpool.
It is a process begun in earnest that has peaked in the past week. The coalition tussle over mandatory sentences for knife crime held the hallmark of parties upping the ante, in their pursuit of a captive audience. Nick Clegg’s veto was leaked to The Daily Mail, then his stance was robustly defended in an article appearing in The Guardian. Then, a few days later, emails claiming Clegg’s flagship free school meals were not fully costed were announced on the World at One. Linking the two was a sense of increasing governmental combustibility.
Free school meals – touted furiously by Clegg but within the remit of the Department for Education and the pugnacious, tribal and influential Michael Gove – ticks all the boxes of a nasty wound to party trust. An externalised, inter-departmental row symptomatic of damaged relations, which only serves to dent increasingly delicate trust between elites in the two coalition parties.
Comparative work by Andeweg and Timmermans on conflict management in coalitions, perhaps unsurprisingly, found the potency of disagreements between parties is pronounced when externalised and echoed beyond the cabinet table. They also found conflicts that develop from inter-departmental bouts, which are commonplace, to the existential threat of disagreements between the parties of government, have long-term repercussions.
Eventually, these issues are transferred to what is known in the jargon as the “government formation arena”. Basically, they may be brought up when the Liberal Democrats are deciding what to do for the next five years, should they get the chance to play kingmaker again.
While the extent to which this matters remains, right now, a moot point – the electoral fundamentals mean psephologists are agreed a hung parliament remains a strong likelihood. Then, this stuff might really make a difference. Employing data on coalitions in Eastern and Western Europe from 1950 through to 2006, the political scientist Margit Tavits found strong party conflict significantly reduced the chances of parties coalescing in future.
Of course, the difficulty of studying the internal dynamics of government, and coalition negotiations, is their innately impermeable nature. The true damage to relations cannot be fully known till the inevitable reveal-all memoirs. Yet Bagehot’s claim that “the most curious point about the cabinet is that so little is known about it” no longer rings wholly true. Matthew D’Ancona’s close-up portrayal In it Together revealed perceptible fault lines within the government, that have only widened.
Questions of personal chemistry and “who gets along with who” may seem like playground stuff, but it has also been shown to matter. Backbench Conservative MPs and grass-roots activists may revel in a policy of aggressive differentiation, particularly after European parliamentary results that will make bleak reading. They should be careful what they wish for.