Coffee House

How a properly ‘proalition’ coalition should work

14 December 2012

Have you noticed, recently, that the Coalition has changed the way it behaves in public? Two years ago, had Nick Clegg dropped his support for major Home Office legislation, spoken out about his own opinion on drugs policy and taken such a different position on a proposed dramatic change to the way newspapers are regulated within the space of a month, journalists would have gone into meltdown. Remember that in the early days of the Coalition, Simon Hughes saying he wasn’t sure about something the Prime Minister had announced was enough to hold the front page. Now we’re seeing differentiation on policies every day.

Today Nick Clegg said he wasn’t convinced that the war on drugs was working, and because of that, ‘yes of course we should do the good work that we are doing as a coalition government, but we should also be open-minded enough to look at whatever alternative approaches help us help those children more effectively in the future’.


The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman made clear this morning that the Prime Minister’s view that current drugs policy is working just fine is the policy of the government, and Clegg is just expressing a personal view. But she added: ‘Well, you know that in coalition governments there will be… differences of opinion.’ Cameron has also in the past few minutes said that Clegg is entitled to have his own view on drugs policy.

Vince Cable was freelancing over the weekend, telling every media outlet that he disagreed with George Osborne’s characterisation of benefit claimants. But Vince has always done this sort of thing, and actually it was striking that in his interview on Pienaar’s Politics, he managed, with the deft moves of the top-notch ballroom dancer that he is, to dodge saying whether he supported the plan to cap benefit rises to 1 per cent. A year ago Nick Clegg was making headlines with how very disappointed he was by David Cameron’s Brussels ‘veto’ moment. This year he has taken different positions to Cameron on three key issues in the past three weeks.

The problem comes when parties start fighting after the legislative process has begun. It would be wrong, for instance, for Clegg to say now that he disagrees with the Welfare Uprating Bill, but perfectly reasonable for him to express an opinion about other policies that his colleagues are mulling over. That is what makes the dispute over the boundary reforms so toxic: this is an agreed policy that the Lib Dems are speaking out against in public, not a proposal by a Tory minister that Clegg and co are reacting to. It is in these instances that backbenchers such as Peter Bone are right to grizzle about collective responsibility.

The two parties needed to present a united front for the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, but keeping up a ‘proalition’-style public pretence that ministers from across the coalition agree on everything would be unpalatable for voters. Nick Clegg expressing his own opinion on policy formation is a far more mature way of approaching the reality of two parties in government than leaving him sitting, with his glum head hanging a little sadly, on the green bench as a minister makes a policy announcement that everyone knows he disagrees with yet doesn’t get a chance to say what he thinks before the decision is made. Being open about the way government works is what a truly ‘proalition’ coalition should do.

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  • Chris

    Cameron is quite happy for Clegg to occasionally make himself differrent, especaily over drugs. Did you notice how Cameron kicked that issue onto Cleggs election agenda? Cute.

    It is not an election winner. Precious few votes in drug legalisation. Evan Harris probably lost his seat over his views on drugs.

    Clegg is surely playing to his fringe, especially his dope- fiend student fringe-(who he has upset over tuition fees). Clegg is very very vulnerable.

    The media, Mark Easton of the Beeb especially, are making much more of this than it is worth. Now why is that do you think? Does Mr Easton have his own drugs agenda?

    Move along please, there is nothing to see here.

  • MirthaTidville

    I think you will find that there are less and less people interested in what the leader of the Fourth Party in this country has to say on anything. He and most of his awful party wont be around after the next election……….Next topic please

  • Coffeehousewall

    Are you really so naive as to imagine that all of this is not carefully stage-managed? Do you really think that there are different political parties who actually have positions of principle? Can you not see that it is just a game, and that the object is to become as wealthy and powerful as possible in as short a time as possible.

    Politics is like Saturday afternoon wrestling used to be. It is not a contest between politicians. It is all to do with fleecing the audience and getting them to believe that there is actually a fight going on. There is certainly, but in the real contest it is the British people of Britain who have been set up to lose.

    • IsabelHardman

      Of course it is stage-managed – but I’d rather the press operation in a coalition were stage managed so that we heard both sides express their opinions prior to agreeing policy.

      • Coffeehousewall

        But this is the point. You seem to be imagining that anything that is said represents an opinion or a principle. Quite clearly it does not. If both Cameron and Clegg have already agreed who will say what and when then it is a manufactured disagreement and all part of the deceit which is modern Party Politics.

        Where are the principles? There are none. There is not one politician who will sacrifice his prospects for principle. Therefore politics is unprincipled. You should be exposing this, not playing along with it.

        • IsabelHardman

          I suppose there are politicians who would sacrifice their prospects for principle, but they remain on the back benches, at a great loss. Just read through the list of rebels on Europe and Lords reform and see the number of bright Tory backbenchers who won’t get promoted as a result of sticking to principle.

        • Thick as two Plancks

          Principles are so scarce they should be used only for the most important matters, not for every silly little argument.

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