David Cameron re­ally should be shar­ing Nick Clegg's pain

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - An­drew Rawns­ley

ne is enough," said Win­ston Churchill of par­lia­men­tary votes. Talk to the more san­guine mem­bers of the coali­tion and they will tell you that a Com­mons ma­jor­ity of 21 in the di­vi­sion on tu­ition fees is there­fore 20 more than enough. They can even muster a case that the out­come was an im­pres­sive demon­stra­tion of the re­silience of this novel form of govern­ment. In the fiery cru­cible, the coali­tion has passed its first tough test - not with ease, but nev­er­the­less by a rea­son­ably com­fort­able par­lia­men­tary mar­gin. When Tony Blair first in­tro­duced tu­ition fees, he was lead­ing a sin­gle-party govern­ment which had won the pre­vi­ous elec­tion by a land­slide. He only just squeaked through with a shriv­elled ma­jor­ity of five. Com­pared with that, if you are a half-glass­full sort of Lib Dem, then a ma­jor­ity of 21 can be made to look pos­i­tively im­pres­sive. If you are a glass-drain­ing-away sort of Lib Dem, this sounds al­to­gether too com­pla­cent. Only the most naive in their ranks thought govern­ment was go­ing to be a piece of cake, but few of them an­tic­i­pated that they would have aroused so much hos­til­ity, split so starkly, taken such a hit to their leader's rep­u­ta­tion and tanked in the polls this early on in the life of the coali­tion. The ques­tion is not whether the last few weeks have been trau­ma­tis­ing and wound­ing for the Lib Dems. They have clearly been both. The ques­tion is the depth and the per­ma­nence of the dam­age. In a very vivid and very pub­lic way, the Lib Dems split down the mid­dle. The di­vide was not along ide­o­log­i­cal lines. MPs usu­ally re­garded as on the left of the party, MPs such as Nor­man Baker, Sarah Teather and Steve Webb, voted for the fees leg­is­la­tion. What they have in com­mon is that they are mem­bers of the govern­ment. The Lib Dem min­is­ters were with Nick Clegg in the aye lobby along with the great ma­jor­ity of Con­ser­va­tive MPs who had been suc­cess­fully ket­tled by the Tory whips. Twenty seven out of 34 Lib Dem back­benchers, more than three quar­ters of them, re­fused to fol­low their leader. They ei­ther ab­stained or joined Labour and the other op­po­si­tion par­ties in the no lobby. If this frac­ture on one vote de­vel­ops into a fis­sure on many then the dura­bil­ity of the coali­tion has to be in doubt.

Whether that hap­pens hangs on whether Nick Clegg can sus­tain the con­fi­dence of his col­leagues that they were right to go into coali­tion with the Tories in the first place. To those who are no longer sure, Mr Clegg's an­swer is that these are the birth pangs of mak­ing the tran­si­tion from be­ing a party of per­ma­nent protest into a party of power against whom peo­ple protest. There's truth in that. But it would be a great deal eas­ier for the Lib Dems and their dwin­dling num­bers of sup­port­ers to pay that penalty if the pain was be­ing equally shared by the Con­ser­va­tives.

An idea about the coali­tion is be­gin­ning to take hold. This idea will eat away at Nick Clegg's author­ity over his party and ul­ti­mately prove fa­tal for the coali­tion if it hard­ens into a fixed view of how this govern­ment works. The idea is that the Lib Dems have be­come the coali­tion's fall guys, the hap­less hu­man shields for David Cameron and Ge­orge Os­borne, the use­ful id­iots of the Tories. In any bar­gain be­tween two par­ties, there will al­ways be a ten­sion cre­ated by the ques­tion: who is get­ting the most out of this deal? When Nick Clegg tied the knot with David Cameron, the Lib Dems supplied the Tory leader with the par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity that he had been de­nied by the elec­torate. Lib Dem in­volve­ment also made the govern­ment look broader-based and more con­sen­sual than a purely Tory ad­min­is­tra­tion, help­ing David Cameron with his restora­tionist project for the Con­ser­va­tives. The Lib Dem con­tin­gent fur­ther pro­vided the Tory leader with al­lies against the un­re­con­structed right of his own party. In re­turn, the Lib Dems got to en­joy their first taste of cabi­net-level power in more than half a cen­tury. Af­ter decades con­signed to wit­ter­ing im­po­tently from the mar­gins, here was an op­por­tu­nity to shape and im­ple­ment pol­icy with the po­ten­tial re­ward of be­ing taken a lot more se­ri­ously by the vot­ers in fu­ture elec­tions so long as the coali­tion was broadly re­garded as a suc­cess.

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