Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is to drop his normally conciliatory voice to attack the Tories at the Lib Dem party conference in Brighton. So what? you may well ask. The mild-mannered Alexander is unlikely to strike the fear of God into his listeners, assuming that anyone beyond the conference hall will be listening, or indeed that the conference hall is full: Brighton being lovely at that time of year.
Besides, bursts of splenetic outrage at one’s coalition partners have become a feature of conferences, particularly since last year’s unhappy AV referendum. There is, dare I say it, a suggestion that they are choreographed for the TV cameras – conferences being the sole occasion when party politics, especially the yellow variety, has a chance of dominating news bulletins.
This prompts the question, should anyone bother listening to Alexander? The Financial Times is taking him seriously. Apparently he plans to attack the Tories’ position on relaxing employment law, arguing that making employees easier to sack represents an ‘irresponsible call for policies with no clear evidence of effectiveness.’
We’ve heard this sort of talk before, at the time of the Beecroft row. The difference is that there is more bad blood between the coalition partners now, and both have marked out their territory for the future. If one takes Alexander at his word, which seems reasonable given that his objections to employment law reform is long-standing, it would suggest that the Conservatives will have a difficult time convincing the Lib Dems to go further on the economy, which, as James reports in his politics column this week, seems to be the plan, in the shape of a new Jobs Bill.
Alexander has his own worries about the economy (as well he might). His conference speech will apparently condemn ‘the refusal of the Conservatives to acknowledge that investing in carbon-reducing technologies has the potential to make an important contribution to long-term growth.’ This is a dig at George Osborne’s recent retreats over green policy, but the ‘greenest government ever’ first had doubts about its mission when Vince Cable’s business department fought Chris Huhne’s DECC and George Osborne’s Treasury over the fourth carbon budget – a battle that raged throughout 2011. Limited concessions were agreed when the Treasury adopted elements of the business Department’s view that the proposed imperilled growth.
Government is not as simple as Danny Alexander would have you believe; certainly, it is not as simple as party politics. This is not to denigrate the Lib Dems’ principles, nor to deny their occasional contradictions. The apparent decline of coalition green policy reinforces the view that ministers can end up fighting their department’s corner first, and that great political battles are often determined by Whitehall departments changing sides. My question to Danny Alexander, assuming that he’s listening, is: who is the real enemy?
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