Wednesday, 16 March 2011

What if....forming the coalition was Cameron's biggest mistake?

As we approach the local elections on May 5th, the coalition parties both face an uncertain fate, with both expecting to get 'huge kicking' from the electorate. The cuts and other policies such as tuition fees, are proving to be intensely unpopular, and dissatisfaction is high. So although David Cameron and his government have made many mistakes since taking office, was his biggest one entering into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats?

Why do I say this? It's because I believe that the coalition has given the Conservatives the confidence to go forward with their policies on cuts, and face down the protests and marches that have, and will, be coming. At the moment they seem to be protected, as the Liberal Democrats are feeling the brunt of the public's ire, but as the recent Barnsley Central by-election showed, the Conservatives themselves are vulnerable.

So, what other options did Cameron have following the May 2010 General Election, a result which left no one in charge, but the Conservatives the biggest party? The arithmetic meant the Labour Party was not in a position to form anything other than a multi-party coalition, but they felt that this wasn't really a feasible option, and the gap between them and the Liberal Democrat negotiators, particularly David Laws and Danny Alexander, was too large. So Gordon Brown ordered them to stop, and informed the Queen he would step down as soon as a new government could be formed.

Although negotiations with the Liberal Democrats had made some progress, rumblings inside David Cameron's own party, particularly over the prospect of a referendum on electoral reform, led to him thinking a full coalition would cause more problems than it solved. Therefore, a much looser 'confidence and supply' agreement was reached, in which the Liberal Democrats would support policies they felt they could live with.

Chancellor George Osborne and Chief Secretary Philip Hammond had wanted to cut very severely, in the hope of paying off the deficit within four years, and hope that the recovery in the private sector had taken off sufficiently for substantial growth to occur in the year leading up to 2015. However, they quickly realised that a budget with this aim would not get through the House, so they knew they would have to rein back.

Discussion with the Liberal Democrats revealed that they felt that Labour's plan top half the deficit in four years was their preferred option, but the Tories wanted to make deeper cuts, even if they realised that elimination was not likely. The agreement was that they would seek to halve the deficit within three years, and eliminate it totally in the first half of a new parliament, when they hoped the economy was more or less back on track, and growing strongly.

So when George Osborne's emergency budget was presented in June, he brought forward a number of policies which sounded restrained, and there was less of an emphasise on cutting, and more on how to create opportunities for growth. The Labour Party, whilst still believing the cuts were too severe, were forced to say they were pleased to see that growth was a high priority, even if they disagreed with some of the detail. Another aspect was that Osborne had been persuaded to levy the banks more than his instincts would have allowed him with a majority behind him.

There were a number of other contentious issues, which the Conservative minority government were forced to be much more circumspect on. The Building Schools for the Future fund was cut, but Education secretary Michael Gove restricted it to projects that were very early in the process of design. Although this caused disquiet in the areas affected, and accusations of Labour areas being targeted, Gove was able to assure them that once a new, more efficient, funding process had been developed, most of them would go ahead.

The Browne report on the future of university funding was published that October, and the government were debating whether to follow its recommendations. Browne had advised tuition fees should rise to £12,000, but David Cameron felt this would be too high. Business secretary David Willetts suggested £9,000, but Cameron knew he would never get this through the House, as the Liberal Democrats had pledged during the election, to vote against any rise. Yet cuts in university funding, which although not the 80% feared, at 40% were still substantial, and the gap had to be filled somehow.

Therefore, the plan put before the House was to double fees to around £6,000 a year, with the hope and expectation that most would see rises in the region of 33%, or £4,500. The sweetener in the deal was that universities that showed a commitment to students from poorer backgrounds would get additional funds in the future, once the economy had recovered. The other big change was that the fees would not be upfront, but repaid after graduation once a salary of £21,000 had been achieved. It was expected the average student would leave university with debts of around £35,000.

The Labour opposition felt this increase was too much, but supported the principle of a smaller increase, and brought forward amendments to that effect. In the end an agreement was reached on a rise in the maximum to £4,800 a year, and with the support of a large proportion of the Labour members, the bill passed, as most Liberal Democrats stuck to their pledge, though one or two, felt the rise was reasonable given the circumstances. There were a number of demonstrations by students against the rises, but these were Small and despite the noise, easily contained by the police.

A number of other measures were brought forward which were much circumscribed, Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms being the main one. It was felt within the government that as this was not something they had included in their manifesto, they would have too much difficulty getting it through, and it was quietly dropped, much to Lansley's chagrin. Lansley's constant briefing against Cameron led to him being shifted sideways to Communities at the first reshuffle, when Eric Pickles was moved to defence and Liam Fox dropped from the cabinet altogether.

Although slow, the economy continued to grow, and cuts in public services were much smaller than it was feared they would be, and councils were able to target them better, so it was felt the less well off weren't being singled out. The boundary changes bill was much amended, and in the end, the Boundaries Commission were charged with reducing the number of MPs to 600 over the next two parliaments, and should seek to equalise constituencies within a certain threshold. The Labour party were unhappy about this, but the Liberal Democrats supported it, and Labour were happy that there would still be a full consultation process, thought eh Commission's overriding target would take priority in the end.

So with the economic picture looking better, unemployment high, but not thought to be surprising considering the crisis that had occurred, and David Cameron proving to be a popular Prime Minister, and the polls showing the Conservatives to have a lead over Labour, he decided to go for an election in October 2012 following the party conferences.

The Boundaries Commission changes had not yet kicked in, so it was fought under the previous ones and the result was Conservative 327, Labour 254, Liberal Democrat60 with others gaining one extra seat, as the Greens doubled their membership. This gave the Conservatives an overall majority of two, but they continued to govern circumspectly, realising it could so easily be lost.

The 2017 General Election proved even more fruitful, as the Conservatives prudent control of public finances meant that they were returned with a majority of 60 and in a position to push on with reforms to public services, they had held back on for so many years. In 2019 David Cameron stepped down and was replaced by Fraser Nelson who had been elected in 2012, and had proved to be a brilliant Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

David Cameron had seen off two labour leaders, with Ed, and then David Miliband both failing to take Labour back into office. The Conservatives mantra that Labour had left just a huge mess behind them had taken hold, and the sensible approach the government had taken was a stark contrast to the 'tax and spend' policies of the previous government. The leader that Nelson faced was Labour's first woman leader, Stella Creasey, but that is another story.

This is, of course, only one of many possible scenarios, but not completely without merit I believe. In this May's local elections the Liberal democrats will be hammered, but the Conservatives will also take a big hit. The drastic cuts look as though they will lead to a stagnant economy at best, and if the coalition last the full five years, the Conservatives could face a huge defeat, regardless of the boundary changes, and whichever electoral system we have in place.

The protests against the cuts are going to be widespread, and the future looks bleak. The changes to the NHS, and education are unpopular, and the public are very quickly becoming disenchanted, and the honeymoon is well and truly over.

The Liberal Democrats may well have virtually disappeared as a single party, especially if the May elections reflect the national polls, and the referendum on the Alternative Vote is badly lost.

But, more than anything, the Liberal Democrats have been seen to have betrayed many of their principles for the trappings of power, and had allowed, almost without protest, to let the Conservatives ride roughshod over the public services, with the cuts in benefits for the disabled, pregnant mothers, housing and many others.

Without the Liberal Democrats, a minority Conservative government, with Liberal democrat support on certain issues would have been forced to rein back on what it wished to do, and instead of the possibility of one term, with many more years in opposition, it could have meant nearly a decade of Conservative rule.

So, although greeted as a brave act when first proposed, and then acted upon, it is possible that creating the coalition was David Cameron's first big mistake, and the doom of the Conservatives.

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