Nick Clegg’s decision to scupper boundary reviews in retaliation for the failure of his Lords reform programme is the very opposite of ‘mature’ government. It is the politics of the sand pit: you have annoyed me, so I’m going to kick your sandcastle down. It’s his way of putting a horse’s head in Cameron’s bed, and the public will be appalled. The coalition has entered a new, destructive phase where Lib Dems will now pride themselves on what Tory measures they can frustrate or destroy (O Levels, profitmaking schools etc).
I’ve just been on the Today programme with David Hall Matthews of the Social Liberal Forum, who claimed that Clegg’s vengeance marks a phase of ‘mature’ coalition, which got me thinking about an example of a proper, mature coalition: that between Labour and the Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament between 1999-2007. That worked because of the way that the late Donald Dewar divided his Cabinet: Lib Dems were given responsibility for portfolios (justice, agriculture) and prided themselves on how competently they handled those portfolios. Ross Finnie and Jim Wallace (farms and justice respectively) acquitted themselves very well, and the Lib Dem share of the vote went up in the 2003 Holyrood election as the electoral admired it. Both were swept away by the SNP surge in 2007 but for eight years it was an example of how coalition can work in Britain. And work to the benefit of the smaller party.
The rather pathetic, vindictive way the Lib Dems are now conducting themselves is neither becoming nor proving electorally popular. They can be taken seriously neither as a force of opposition, not as a force of government. I suspect Clegg realises this. He’s looking at his party and saying: ‘I am their leader, I must follow them.’ I suspect Clegg personally wants to be constructive, not sit there putting a spoke in the wheels of anything that seems to be moving in the government. There is a way that Cameron and Clegg can overcome their joint problem: a reshuffle that would give the Lib Dems entire departments, and let them be judged on what they can build, not what they can destroy. That would be better for everyone.