Clegg, Cameron and the coalition – what happens now?

The Lib Dem-Conservative coalition government marks its first anniversary this week, but will it be a cause for celebration?

What are the chances of the two parties making it to the finishing line in 2015 - and what impact have recent events (the uproar at proposed NHS reform, the failure of the Lib Dems to secure a new voting system for the UK , the handling of the economy and foreign policy issues) had on this uneasy alliance.

Here, Professor Tim Bale, an expert on Party politics, gives his opinion.

On 11 May 2011, the coalition government has its first-year anniversary. How would you rate the achievements by the coalition?

On the positive side, the coalition has managed, politically, to convince the electorate that the deficit had more to do with a big-spending Labour government than a global financial crisis. It also gives the impression that it has made some tough choices that will pay off in the long term and that the sacrifices won't be too unfairly spread. People like its plans to cut immigration, although whether they are actually good for the country is a debatable point. On the negative side, it has failed to convince the electorate that its decision to shift much of the cost of university education to students is fair or workable, or that it has the right idea of how to run the NHS, or that its deficit reduction programme will help rather than harm the economy.

What's your assessment of the coalition's performance to date?

The coalition has worked pretty effectively given how unfamiliar British politicians and civil servants are with this kind of government. Generally speaking, the arguments that have gone on are just as likely to have occurred between ministers from the same party as between ministers from different parties. Arguably, the coalition's main problem is that it has tried to do too much too soon, and has therefore had to execute a number of small u-turns (for example on its plans to sell off the national forests) or pause to reconsider whether it might be rushing some major reforms (the most obvious instance being NHS reform).

A key ambition of the Liberal Democrats was electoral reform. What do you make, therefore, of the "No" result in the referendum on the Alternative Vote?

I think the Yes campaign was doomed from the start. The problem wasn't the salesmanship, it was the product. The Alternative Vote wasn't a system that anyone ever really wanted: many of those inclined to vote for it really wanted a fully proportional system; those who voted no preferred to stick with a tried and trusted system; and those who weren't really interested couldn't really see what all the fuss was about.

How do you think the results will affect Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and what would this mean for David Cameron and the coalition government?

The Lib Dems now know they have to prove to people that this coalition can deliver at least some of what they promised them at the general election in 2010 as well, of course, as eliminating the UK government's deficit and getting us back on the path to sustained economic growth. There will be an argument - one that will start now and rumble on - between those who believe that it will all come good in the end and those who wonder whether the whole thing has been a terrible mistake which they should try and put right sooner rather than later by escaping the coalition. The compromise will be to claim to be tougher and more businesslike in negotiations with the Conservatives. Whether it's a line that will convince many people we will have to see.

How would you rate David Cameron since he has been in office?

Early on, especially during his visit to South Asia, Cameron's inexperience showed and he has to resist the common British tendency to lecture the rest of the world. He had a sticky moment in the Middle East, too, when it seemed he was trying to help sell arms at the same time as celebrating democratic change. By and large, though, he hasn't put a foot wrong in Europe, forming good relationships with both France and Germany, while the transatlantic bond still seems strong, despite the very different approach of the Obama administration to handling the economy. Libya was a very difficult call: it was something he felt he had to do rather than wanted to do - and it's too early to tell what the result will be.

What challenges do you think the coalition will face in the coming months and why?

There are three: holding itself to together and preventing an early election which neither party really wants; convincing people that the healthcare reforms aren't going to endanger the highly popular NHS; and the possibility that the economy will not deliver the growth needed to increase its political popularity and help the deficit reduction plan to work.

Do you think the coalition will last through to the next General Election in 2015?

If the international precedents are anything to go by, I think there is a strong possibility that it will break up before 2015, primarily because many Liberal Democrats fear electoral annihilation if they don't get out sooner rather than later. But just because it breaks up doesn't necessarily mean there will be an instant, early election.

Do you think the Liberal Democrats will win back voters in the next few years? What do you think will be necessary in order for the party to gain back trust from its voters?

I think it is has lost some supporters (and members) forever. I also think there is a strong chance that the Party will end up splitting, with some MPs deciding to stick with the Conservatives and some going it alone. The problem for the Lib Dems is that the Party fought the election under false pretences - as a centre-left party - and then did a deal with their opponents on the centre-right. It was understandable why they did it, but it was strategically a catastrophic error.

How do you think the approval for David Cameron and the Conservative Party might change in the coming months?

I think the Party will lose a little support as public spending cuts begin to bite and the economy shows insufficient signs of growing. But the Conservatives are used to mid-term unpopularity and then finishing strongly to win at the General Election. Whether, though, they can win an overall majority is another matter: Labour are not performing brilliantly, but they are nowhere near as weak as they were when Mrs Thatcher (still the model for most Conservative politicians) was in power.

Notes for Editors


Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. He is author of the critically acclaimed book The Conservative Party From Thatcher to Cameron (Polity Press).

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Last updated: Monday, 9 May 2011