So with a week to go until polling day and the polls still suggesting the possibility of a hung Parliament as the result of the gripping election campaign currently underway in Britain, this is as good a moment as any to start thinking through how such a scenario might pan out – and what it will mean for Whitehall and foreign policy.
First, the obvious question of what colour coalition we might end up with. Many in Labour had assumed that the Lib Dems’ natural inclination would be to snuggle up with them, given their shared progressive tendencies. Rather a rude awakening for them, then, to see Nick Clegg distancing himself from Labour last weekend – prompting plaintive noises from David Miliband on Twitter, who complained that
“Clegg swerve to back Tories needs to be explained to all progressive minded voteras. Old politics not new.”
But according to a senior Tory I spoke to earlier this week, it’s straightforward political logic that the Conservatives would be the Lib Dems’ first choice as a coalition partner, given the political risks they’d run for the next election campaign if they were seen to have propped up “the fag end of an unpopular government”. Well, maybe, maybe not – Lib Dem activists and MPs, most of whem are well to the left of Nick Clegg, might have something to say about that.
More interestingly, though, this same Tory also suggested to me that David Cameron himself might secretly prefer a coalition with the Lib Dems – if the choice is between that and a wafer-thin outright majority. Cameron’s own position as party leader would be secured by an outcome that puts him in Number 10, coalitions included. But the wafer thin majority scenario would face him with the horrendous possibility of his administration being John Major 2.0 – with Number 10 held to ransom by MPs well to the right of the Cameroons’ Tories. (As polling of the Conservatives’ prospective parliamentary candidates shows, many of the likely new intake of Conservative MPs are not, shall we say, in the same place as Global Dashboard readers on issues like Europe or climate change).
A coalition government, on the other hand, might strengthen Cameron’s hand considerably – above all when it comes to making the tough calls needed on public spending cuts. A government with a tiny majority and less than a third of the popular vote has a de facto legitimacy problem in taking brutal decisions. A coalition with 60% of the popular vote, on the other hand, will find it much easier to claim a serious mandate – if it can agree a joint program.
But it’s also too soon to rule out the possibility of a Lib / Lab coalition. There’s a whiff of panic in the air, with even seasoned commentators questioning whether Labour could be obliterated as a political force. My old boss Matthew Taylor said two days ago that “if Labour trails in a bad third next week, a divided, demoralised and impoverished Party could easily go into a long term decline, becoming a Party whose highest realistic aspiration is to a be a minority partner in a future coalition”; Rachel Sylvester, too, asks whether we’re looking at “the end for Labour”. All this may make for fertile ground for a further-reaching coalition deal than the Tories would be willing to offer – and note that Nick Clegg followed his appearance on the Andrew Marr show with an interview with Patrick Wintour setting out his terms for a deal with Labour.
Whichever of the two big parties the Lib Dems get into bed with in a hung parliament scenario, a massive what-if will be whether The Deal is just a short term political pact – on that runs through to October 2011, say – or a proper continental-style Coalition, built to last for a four year term. And that brings us to one of the biggest questions in all this: what would be the Lib Dems’ top negotiation priorities.
To the extent that the media are asking this question, their main assumption is that it will be electoral reform that sits at the top of Nick Clegg’s shopping list. But while that certainly does matter for them, the other sine qua non will be as many seats in the Cabinet as possible. This is all about being seen to be a serious party, ready for government. Today, the Lib Dems have zero ministerial experience, and only two front benchers with national recognition (Clegg and Vince Cable). But if they secured – say – five Cabinet seats, and held on to them for four years, then that could shift how people see the party for good.
I agree with that analysis – and would only add that given the public spending context, there’ll be much more of a premium on some jobs than others. Of course, the obviously top jobs – PM, Chancellor, Foreign and Home Secretaries – will be desirable simply by dint of profile and prestige, even if (as in the case of Chancellor) they’ll be unpopular due to spending cuts. (Interesting to note, incidentally, that in his Paxman interview, David Cameron ruled out any possibility of Vince Cable being Chancellor in a Tory / Lib Dem coalition, saying he disagreed with his underlying analysis of the crisis. That would of course increase the chances of a Lib Dem foreign secretary, always a more politically straightforward job to give to a ‘frenemy’: c.f. David Miliband under Gordon Brown, Joschka Fischer under Gerhard Schroder).
As for the other posts in the Cabinet, I think they’ll fall into two camps. On one hand, there’ll be the big public spending departments: Children & Schools, Housing & Planning, Work & Pensions, Communities & Local Government, Transport, Defence, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Running any of these departments will, for the most part, involve a whole world of pain: unpopular cuts, furious public sector workers who will spend much of their either abusing you or on strike (or both), and a steady stream of bad news stories. I’d also include Health in this list, as I simply don’t believe that any party will be able to protect it a hundred per cent.
And on the other hand, those departments that are not primarily about spending money: Business & Innovation, International Development, Energy & Climate, Environment & Food, Culture (plus the Leaders of both Houses, and Chief Whip). Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather have one of these? And what’s interesting from a Global Dashboard perspective is that suddenly it’s the departments for global issues that are the really interesting ones, rather than (as has traditionally been the case) the big spending departments. Also interesting is that these are some of the issues the Lib Dems are most interested in.
So much for the political stripe of a coalition government and its ministerial composition. Next question: how might it change the way policymaking works in Whitehall?
[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]