Alan McGauley: This marriage of convenience is ending in tears

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RELOCATING the annual pantomime of party conferences from the seaside piers to gritty urban centres seems more appropriate for the difficult times they, and the country, are facing.

For the three main parties, the stakes are unusually high for this stage in the Parliamentary cycle, with more than three years to the next general election.

Though the coalition partners are under most pressure, it is unlikely to result in divorce quite yet – the Liberal Democrats would be wiped out if a snap election occurred in the next six months.

So why are both coalition partners unhappy with this marriage of convenience? The Liberal Democrat grassroots is in revolt. Coalition involves shoddy compromises that activists detest; furthermore a report says the council elections turned into a “perfect storm” because the referendum on the alternative vote (AV) also took place on the same day. AV was rejected and the party lost 700 town hall seats.

The passage into government has been painful for the Lib Dems and they could be accused of naivety. Normally in UK politics, their policies are not seen as that important, hence their history of selling different messages to different communities. In 2005, helped by its opposition to the Iraq war, the party got away with posing as Labour’s Left-wing conscience, while at the same time campaigning on tax-raising policies that envisaged enormous transfer of resources from the poor to the affluent.

In 2010, their opposition to tuition fees had the young and the middle class queuing to vote in target seats – and we know what happened after that.

After the campaign, Nick Clegg offered “a new politics” with “no more broken promises”. The promise not to break promises, could only be realised in an agreement that allowed Lib Dem MPs, including frontbenchers, to abstain on central issues in the senior coalition partner’s programme.

However Clegg then threw himself eagerly into coalition, insisting that it required Lib Dem “ownership” of everything ministers collectively decided.

The errors of the campaign, and of committing the Lib Dems to coalition government, may have been avoided if their leader had been more experienced.

But not only was Clegg unfamiliar with British politics, he was also, despite representing a Sheffield constituency, unfamiliar with Britain outside London and the Home Counties. As Chris Bowers, his biographer, points out, his working life was spent largely in Brussels, he attended a school in the metropolis and his family are international.

Clegg’s political strength – that he was an outsider – may prove in the end to be his greatest weakness. The impact of his naivety, both for him and his party, may prove disastrous. It is not just the grassroots – a revolt is happening among some MPs, such as Greg Mulholland, MP for Leeds North West. They know that the game is up and they are distancing themselves from the coalition. This is similar to what is happening to the Conservatives in Scotland and could cause real damage to the Liberal Democrats as a party.

For the senior partner in the coalition, the challenges are significantly different. It is no secret than many in the Conservative Party regard the Liberals with disdain. Tory traditionalists are increasingly angry about the influence wielded by the Lib Dems and the dilution of core Tory policies because of the coalition. David Cameron is no longer the fresh-faced leader opposing Tony Blair across the despatch box in 2005. This autumn is the sixth anniversary of his rise to prominence and his record of achievement could best be described as mixed. He very narrowly made it to Number 10, an achievement which eluded his three predecessors but at a massive cost to his manifesto.

What should concern him most is that parts of his party are concluding that he cannot grow into a true, Conservative leader. Their thoughts are starting to turn to what a more authentically conservative future might look like with someone else at the helm.

Next month’s Conservative conference will be overshadowed by this theme, particularly in fringe events organised by right-of-centre think tanks.

Several books of essays by MPs are also scheduled for publication and these will examine the policies a majority Conservative government might pursue. One will be titled After the Coalition – which sounds like a polite way of saying goodbye to Cameron before he poses more problems for the conservative brand.

The problems are now beginning to mount: the economy, the lack of growth, the never-ending Coulson effect, the failure to reform the NHS along conservative principles, rising youth unemployment, the urban riots and the crisis of the family.

Core Conservative issues are causing an increasing number of small revolts, in the grass roots. The abortion issue, the call for capital punishment and harsher welfare cuts resonate with the core of Conservative MPs who want a blue Tory leader – and not a magnolia one.

The stakes are that high.

Alan McGauley is a principal lecturer in politics at Sheffield Hallam University.