Comment: Cameron and Clegg's coalition myths need uncovering

Cameron and Clegg are using the midterm review opportunity to once again grandstand about the virtues of their approach
Cameron and Clegg are using the midterm review opportunity to once again grandstand about the virtues of their approach
Alex Stevenson By

This midterm review is littered with half-truths tailored to help David Cameron and Nick Clegg cling on to power. They are complicit in the same deceits: what better reason to continue to stick together?

This review has been fashioned towards a single goal: boosting the odds of the coalition making it all the way through its self-proclaimed five-year term.

Going the distance has started to seem less certain in the last 12 months or so. Grumpy Conservative backbenchers have begun muttering about ways to kick the disrespectful Liberal Democrats out of power before 2015. Some have wondered whether the flakier Lib Dems' chances at the next election would be better without Clegg at the helm.

On a day-to-day basis, there is little the prime minister and his deputy have been able to do to head off these rumours. Today is different. Today, with that bright new year feeling of optimism making us all the more receptive to their messages, the leaders are refreshing the case for power once again.

Unlike any previous relaunch, this one really matters. It contains a package of formally negotiated policy areas where further reforms will be pursued. That most of these are so long-term as to make them broadly academic is irrelevant: it shows the coalition can keep itself busy, at a time when its parliamentary agenda has been flagging. By summing up the rationale for the coalition, Cameron and Clegg are offering their activists and MPs a rough draft of the parties' general election pitch.

This is a necessary exercise in leadership. It is novel, because party leaders are not usually obliged to be so open with their party members. Like in 2010, its strange transparency is the result of the entire proposition being pre-emptive: it must be accepted in full, as the original arrangement was in 2010, or rejected completely. Cameron and Clegg hope their parties will swallow this, just as they accepted the initial coalition proposition.

Having spent the last two-and-a-half years parroting the narrative presented by their leaders, the chances are the party memberships will accept this in the same way. The coalition has developed its own self-justifying narrative over its first years in power. It is a coherent package, but one riddled with spin in a way far surpassing the 'on message' obsession of the New Labour years. Just look at the language of the review's foreword: it contains three myths summing up the government's internal logic which simply don't stand up to scrutiny.

1 - Progress on the economy

"In just two years we have cut the deficit by a quarter and have set out a credible path towards our goal to balance the current budget over the economic cycle." - David Cameron and Nick Clegg, foreword, coalition midterm review

Nothing has united the coalition's partners quite like their joint determination to bring the deficit under control. This was originally driven by the hope that five years would be enough to turn the economy around, allowing Cameron and Clegg to present the British public with a country returned to prosperity after five years in power. Halfway through that period, the recovery is not going according to schedule. The hope and optimism that some unpleasant medicine might produce results has been replaced by a rigid commitment to Plan A. George Osborne and Danny Alexander are entrenched in austerity. If they are to retain political credibility, they have no choice but to continue on their current track.

Hence the current focus, begun in last month's autumn statement, on the idea that "progress" is being made. Spending cuts and tax rises were only supposed to continue for five years; but there are still five more years to go until the austerity ends in 2017/18. Ministers hope they will get credit for maintaining the markets' confidence in Britain. Voters care more about what is happening in their wallets.

2 - Making a virtue out of necessity

"Our most important task is to build a stronger, more balanced economy capable of delivering lasting growth and widely shared prosperity. In essence, this involves two things: growing the private sector, and reforming the public sector so that what the government does – and the money it spends – boosts, rather than undermines, Britain's competitiveness."

Suspicions that the Conservatives were using austerity to drive forward their vision of a Britain transformed by their ideology are the big forgotten part of the run-up to the 2010 general election campaign. Back then, the fear was that the Tories in power would ruthlessly promote their belief in the private sector and inflict punishing reforms on the public sector.

Oddly, these fears have not gripped public debate since 2010. Maybe it has something to do with Osborne and co shrugging their shoulders and pretending this isn't a big deal.  Perhaps it is the power of the right-wing national press, which hasn't been too bothered by the shift. Regardless, it doesn't change the fact this process is now well and truly underway. Watch out for references to Britain's place in the "global race" - the threat that a failure to reform will lead to the UK's competitiveness falling behind.

3 - Making a virtue out of unpopularity

"We have consistently chosen to do what is right over what is easy or popular; what is in our country's long-term interest over our parties' short-term interest." - David Cameron and Nick Clegg, foreword, coalition midterm review

Few phrases emerging from a politician's mouth are more designed to attract your support than the selfless piety of the 'I'm not doing this for my party' line. Ministers know the voting public are sick of divisive politics and are instinctively attracted to unity. Yet the list of unpopular policies pushed through by the coalition goes is easily long enough to wipe out any capital gained from the 'right thing' gambit. Just look at the list presented by Cameron and Clegg. Tuition fees, spending cuts, coping with an 'ageing population', even tackling climate change - this is not a well-loved government.

The real truth is the coalition's leaders have felt emboldened to take harder decisions because they hope the electoral impact will be diminished. There is another party to blame all this on. In reality, Cameron and Clegg have not diverted their concentration from their parties' best interests one iota since forming this government.

4 - Keeping the country together

"Two and a half years ago, our parties came together in the national interest and formed a coalition at a time of real economic danger." - David Cameron and Nick Clegg, foreword, coalition midterm review

This is the biggest deceit of all. Cameron and Clegg are using the midterm review opportunity to once again grandstand about the virtues of their approach. Doing so allows them to make deceits of the grandest proportions. Where does the coalition's authority come from?

Even at a moment of relative stability, the decision to weld two parties together would have been questionable. It has no electoral mandate, which makes its use of crisis to justify a reform programme all the more egregious. The radical agenda has drastically over-reached what coalition politics should have been. The party leaders have betrayed the principle of coalition politics by pretending to be something they are not.

Myth piled upon myth: Cameron and Clegg have created an entire superstructure of argument to create the biggest myth of all. Their authority, their government, their careers, rest on a legitimacy which is entirely artificial. It looks like they're going to get away with it.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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