David Cameron’s new coalition government is a gamble. But it could yet prove a surprisingly successful one
May 13th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
THE youngest prime minister in almost two centuries; the first coalition government in 65 years; the first-ever Conservative-Liberal Democrat government: by accident, British history was made in all sorts of ways this week. This newspaper had hoped that the election on May 6th would return a single party—the Conservatives—with a strong mandate. But after five days of deal-making and denunciation during which it seemed that a multi-party ratatouille based on a losing Labour Party might take power or a minority Tory government be forced to beg its bread at every vote, the best possible outcome given the ropy electoral numbers has emerged: a formal coalition to implement an agreed agenda containing much of the best in each party’s manifesto. We welcome it.
Rolling up shirtsleeves
There are two broad challenges for the new government led by David Cameron, the Tory leader, and Nick Clegg, his Lib Dem deputy. The first is fiscal. Within two weeks a joint legislative programme must be presented to Parliament. Within less than two months a new emergency budget is due.
The broad policy outlines are clear—and pretty good. Supply-side education reform, the strongest policy in the Tory manifesto, is to go ahead, with the desirable addition of the Lib Dem commitment to put quite a lot of extra money into teaching poor children. Moving benefit recipients from welfare to work, a sound Tory (and indeed Labour) policy, will also be pursued. Labour’s beloved ID cards are to be scrapped, thank heavens, as is the third runway for Heathrow airport. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is preserved. Policies on immigration and Europe show signs of struggle and fudge, but the Tory annual cap on non-European migrants survives and the Lib Dems’ amnesty for those already in Britain does not.
The fiscal trade-offs also make sense. Both parties want to put the burden of deficit cutting on lower spending rather than higher taxes. The Lib Dems, however, were disposed to wait until economic recovery was more assured. They have agreed to make a start this year, cutting £6 billion ($9 billion). Though only a modest step it is an important one, as Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, underlined this week. Financial markets are hypersensitive to sovereign-debt quality in the wake of Greece’s troubles. The best way to reassure them that Britain will cut its deficit is to start doing so. The Tories have relinquished their totemic pledge to raise the threshold for inheritance tax, bowing to the Lib Dem desire to lighten taxes on less wealthy workers instead by raising allowances. This is certainly more defensible in the current climate, even if it means the new government must scramble for ways to pay for the more expensive income-tax cut.
This government will be Mr Cameron’s—and the calm way he has pushed this deal through will have reassured doubters (during the negotiations he made it ever harder for Mr Clegg to opt for Labour). The Lib Dems will have five people in the cabinet, but the great offices of state remain firmly Tory. Vince Cable, the Lib Dems’ Treasury spokesman, becomes business secretary, in which role his anti-bank and anti-business rhetoric may give rise to some unhappiness. But all in all the division of the spoils seems a good one, and surprisingly free of acrimony.
More divisive will be the new government’s second challenge: political reform. Among the novelties this election has thrown up, thanks to the non-aggression pact between the two parties, is Britain’s first fixed-term parliament. It will run for five years unless enough MPs vote for dissolution. A more important, and contentious, issue is the first-past-the-post electoral system, which regularly denies the Lib Dems and smaller parties a share of parliamentary seats commensurate with their share of the vote. Mr Cameron, over the shrieks of most of his party, has promised a referendum on introducing an alternative-vote (AV) system allowing voters to rank candidates by preference. It was the price of coalition.
This change in itself falls far short of the proportional representation that Lib Dems would like. But it signals a necessary willingness to debate broader reform. The electoral system is straining to reflect an electorate with increasingly diverse views: the two biggest parties’ share of the vote has dropped from 81% in 1979 to 65% in 2010, yet Tory and Labour MPs will still probably account for 565 of the 650 total. In the coming weeks The Economist will set out its own views on how to reform not just the electoral system but also the House of Lords, party funding and other bits of the political structure. Though they will not themselves advocate change, the Conservatives have opened the door to a fundamental overhaul.
Dave of the thousand days?
Some suggest that the new coalition represents a realignment of politics towards the centre-right. That’s not obviously so: Labour was not wiped out, and many Lib Dems still long for a “progressive alliance” of the left. The coalition could break down before the five years expire. Though all 57 Lib Dem MPs approved it, many will oppose the government on individual issues or abstain from voting, and a few may walk altogether. On the Tory side, right-wingers will resist each compromise. A cabinet containing disgruntled folk from both parties will be a nightmare to run. Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg may get on well together (see article), but their man-management skills will be sorely tested by their own party members.
Still, there is much going for this arrangement. The parties will share responsibility for unpopular fiscal decisions, which should make them easier to take. The fact that, together, they have 59% of the vote will help persuade the electorate to accept painful cuts. Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg have struggled to marginalise their parties’ loonier fringes, and their alliance may assist them in that task. They are both sensible, pragmatic types; if anybody can make this deal work, they can.
After 13 years in power, Labour has gone, and not before time. Its replacement looks far sounder that anybody dared hope: a coalition of ideas and people that, on the whole, brings out the best in both parties. For the Tories, for the Lib Dems and for Britain, it’s a good deal.
Thursday, 13 May 2010
Posted by MANUEL DE ARAÚJO at Thursday, May 13, 2010