We have had much occasion to reflect, recently, on Disraeli’s dictum that Britain ‘does not love coalitions’. It’s now becoming depressingly clear that coalitions don’t much love Britain either. What started off as functional coalition government has descended into the most appalling policy blackmail which I looked at in my Daily Telegraph column yesterday. I said that granting ‘minority’ status to the Cornish was the result of such a horse-trade. We’ve had more examples today. The Daily Mail has stood up the fact that the Cornish move was in return for Clegg approving a £600 million reform of Town Hall pensions. The Times leader joins this theme, saying the horse trading is ‘an example of how not to govern‘. But it’s an example of what our government has now become.
In Dominic Cummings’ incendiary blog, he reveals that Nick Clegg’s ‘universal free school meals’ policy was demanded in exchange for his not vetoing Cameron’s £700 million marriage tax break Given that 1,700 schools don’t even have kitchens, it’s a bad policy already bringing chaos to smaller schools. It could only have been produced by the horsetrading system that now exists where proper government used to be. Cummings is acting as whistleblower, a pursuit that this coalition has moved to protect. Which makes it all the more amusing that Clegg now wants him arrested.
How, you might ask, did the Lib Dems come to have a veto over anything? The answer lies in something called the Home Affairs Committee in cabinet. Clegg chairs this committee, and uses it as a device to veto policies that the Tories are keen on. ‘He then banks it,’ a Cabinet member explained to me, ‘and then uses it barter in the Quad. That’s where the horse-trading takes place. None of us know what goes on there.’
The ‘Quad’ is David Cameron, George Osborne and their respective LibDem deputies: Clegg and Danny Alexander. This, rather than the Cabinet, makes the decisions for British government and grants 50 per cent of the power to a party with just 9 per cent of the seats. Say what you like about Clegg, but he has negotiated a pretty good deal for his party. As one Tory puts it: ‘While the PM is watching box sets with Sam Cam, Clegg is pulls the strings which run the British government ‘
And why doesn’t Cameron nudge Clegg off the chairmanship of this committee? ‘Because he doesn’t like conflict, he’d rather resolve things over a chat,’ says a minister And there’s plenty to chat about in the Quad, with Clegg able to walk into each meeting holding a bunch of Tory policies hostage and willing to negotiate for their release. ‘But it’s not as bad as you think,’ a senior Cameron-friendly Tory told me. ‘We do it too.’ Yes, that’s not as bad as you think — it’s far worse. It means both Tories and LibDems are now putting party before country.
That Tories also veto good LibDem policies just for the hell of it underlines that coalition is now inimical to good government in Britain. Jeremy Heywood should, quite frankly, be ashamed to preside over a mechanism which shortcuts all the checks and balances that a democratic system is supposed to bring. Result? Under-examined policy ideas, omnishambolic budgets, U-turns aplenty and simply bad government. Gimmicks supplanting good policy.
The model of co-operation which looked so impressive at the start of this government has given way to tit-f0r-tat battle for headlines — with Clegg playing the role of saboteur, and Tories joining in his game. Cameron should have given the LibDems their own departments so they’d judge themselves on what they can create — not on how often they put a spoke in Tory wheels.
The party political broadcast made by the Tories (above) before the last election warning about the horror of coalitions now looks horribly prophetic. Lack of transparency? Tick — meet the Quad. Under-the-table deals? Tick — meet the Home Affairs cabinet committee (actually, we’ll never meet either as their affairs are conducted in secret, and promises scribbled on Post-It notes so they can’t be FOI’d). Smashed piggy — tick. Anyone seen the rate of interest on Cash ISAs recently? Saving is now a mug’s game. We haven’t had a new election, though. Looking at what’s become of the government, you rather wish we had.
I don’t blame Clegg, and still regard him as an honest many trying his best to save his party in horrible situation. As it turns out, the adversarial Westminster system suffocates the smaller party in a coalition. (The Holyrood system enhanced the status of minority party, as the Scottish LibDems found to their delight in 2003). For all Clegg’s success out-manouvering the chillaxing Cameron, voters are distinctly unimpressed – the party now stands to lose every one of its beloved MEPs in next week’s election.
What started off as a bold and radical joint attempt to shape Britain is now disintegrating into tawdry deals that bring discredit to both parties. As I said in the Telegraph, the Tories needn’t worry about making a new advert against coalition for the next election – this coalition government has become a very expensive advert for a system that does not bear repeating.