Tim Bale: Lose-lose scenario will start to haunt the Lib-Dems as belts are tightened

Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg addresses the partys spring conference in Sheffield, but the coalition partner is suffering in the opinion polls.  Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA
Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg addresses the partys spring conference in Sheffield, but the coalition partner is suffering in the opinion polls. Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA
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IT’S clear from their recent conference at Sheffield that the Lib Dems are still coming to terms with being in government. But the common wisdom is that they – and therefore the coalition as a whole – will go the distance.

In fact, there are lots of reasons to think that things may not be quite so simple. What we know about coalition government in other countries strongly suggests that things are likely to get worse rather than better.

It won’t be long before the coalition celebrates its first anniversary. And many of its most enthusiastic supporters, be they Lib Dems or Conservatives, will argue that if it’s managed to make it so far, then there’s every reason to think it will last the whole five years.

The international evidence, however, suggests that this is nonsense. The risk that a coalition will fall apart and trigger an early election rises rather than falls with the passage of time. The honeymoon soon comes to an end. Stuff happens. Resentments build up within the ranks. Voters’ patience wears thin.

There are two main reasons why coalitions end early. The first is something that comes out of the blue, like a domestic scandal or an international crisis that drives the partners apart.

The chances of completely avoiding such “critical events” are small, although their effects can be mitigated if there are good personal relationships at the top and if effective dispute resolution mechanisms are set up early on.

The other reason why coalition governments commonly break up is less dramatic but more serious. It’s the economy, stupid – and in particular low growth combined with persistent unemployment or (especially when the political balance of the coalition is tilted towards the Right rather than the Left) inflation.

This, of course, is exactly the scenario the coalition Government is facing. Throw in the consequences of its decision to cut the deficit over the course of one parliament into the mix and it becomes truly toxic.

The Conservatives can probably cope. They have, after all, been here before. In the 1980s and early 1990s, they endured tough times, gambling successfully on being able to engineer temporary booms to see them through elections. And administering nasty but supposedly necessary medicine is arguably in their DNA. It’s also what voters expect them, and indeed elect them, to do.

The Lib Dems, however, are a different kettle of fish. They are a relatively new and therefore less stable compound formed by the merger of a radical, ultra-democratic, but essentially market-friendly Liberal Party, on the one hand, and, on the other, the centre-Left Social Democrats who split from Labour not because they had abandoned their ideals but in protest at their party being taken over (temporarily as it turned out) by the Left. The consequent ideological and organisational fault-lines are still pretty obvious.

Most Lib Dems did not come into politics to preside over what looks awfully like the decimation of supposedly vital public services. Nor are they the sort of people who like being told what to do – either by Whitehall or by Westminster, especially when the political consequences, as measured by opinion polls, by-elections and local authority contests don’t look too promising.

The argument Lib Dem leaders make, of course, is that by entering a coalition, no matter how counter-intuitive, they were grabbing the chance to demonstrate their maturity and responsibility. This, they maintain, will earn the respect, the gratitude, and ultimately the votes of the general public.

Unfortunately, at least for the Lib Dems, this rosy picture is highly unlikely to play out in reality. Wherever you look, parties in government almost always lose rather than gain support from one election to another.

More depressing still, junior partners in a coalition are often victims of a double whammy, getting just as much blame as their senior partner for the things that go wrong but getting little or no credit for whatever goes right.

The Lib Dems are particularly likely to find themselves in this lose-lose scenario. For one thing, they totally underplayed their hand when the coalition was first put together. Vegetarians negotiating with carnivores, they got far less out of the Tories than they should have done in terms of ministries and policies which they could then use to boost their profile and their popularity.

Winning the AV referendum will impress few outside the chattering classes. Nor will it necessarily make up for votes lost elsewhere as belts are tightened in schools, hospitals and households. Moreover, any loss of support will hit Clegg and Co much harder than it will hit the Conservatives.

If the Lib Dems’ standing fails to improve, they won’t necessarily return to the days where the parliamentary Liberal Party could fit in the back of a taxi. But they may end up needing only a minibus rather than a coach.

If that looks likely, then chances are that some of the occupants will demand that those driving either change direction or surrender control of the wheel. Failing that, they will simply get out early and go their own way.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Sussex University and the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, just published in paperback by Polity Press.