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Britain’s coalition bestows lopsided benefits

by Tina Burrett

Special To The Japan Times

“England does not love coalitions.”

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s famous phrase about English antipathy toward coalitions is as apt today as when it was first uttered in 1852. After one year in office, England certainly doesn’t show love for its current coalition government.

Britain’s public finances were in a dire state when the coalition took office in May 2010. Any incoming government had to prioritize tackling the deficit. Yet, according to an Ipsos MORI poll, seven out of 10 British voters consider the current public spending cuts by the coalition to be “too much too fast.”

Consequently, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s approval rating has dropped from a post-election high of 60 percent to around 40 percent today.

Given the extent of public anger, though, Cameron has gotten off surprisingly lightly. Remarkably, compared to one year ago, the Conservative Party increased its share of the vote in local elections held at the start of May 2011. Cameron’s good fortune comes at the expense of his beleaguered deputy, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

As the government’s chief public spending ax man, Chancellor George Osborne predicted before the election that he would be Britain’s most unpopular man. But Osborne has cannily managed to avoid this fate. Asked why this prophecy failed to come true, Osborne quipped: “I hadn’t reckoned on Nick Clegg.”

The Lib Dems provide a human shield for the Tory leadership, drawing public ire and providing cover for Cameron with the right wing of his party.

Since Disraeli’s famous speech in 1852, the vast majority of British general elections have delivered single-party governments. Just seven past elections have resulted in coalitions and an equal number in minority governments. The mean duration of British coalitions has been 43.3 months in office.

Minority governments have lasted an average of 17.9 months. It is obvious why Cameron preferred to make a deal with the Lib Dems rather than going it alone in government. Although England loves coalitions more than minority governments, it is much more difficult to see what Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are getting from the deal.

A recent poll of people who voted Lib Dem in the 2010 general election revealed that just 54 percent would back the party again in 2015.

More naturally attuned to ideas from the center-left of the political spectrum, many Lib Dems would have preferred a coalition with Labour than with the Conservatives. But post-election arithmetic made a Liberal-Labour coalition unworkable. And with the financial markets putting pressure on Britain to produce a stable government, a Conservative-Liberal coalition was the only immediately viable option.

Thus far, the Con-Lib coalition has shown few liberal tendencies. In effect, Britain has a Conservative government. It is hard to pinpoint how the presence of Lib Dem ministers in the Cabinet has tempered the Conservative agenda.

As the bigger coalition partner, it is understandable that the Tories will dominate the government’s legislative program. But there should be some lines that Clegg is not willing to cross. For the Lib Dems to abandon their promise to scrap university tuition fees would have been one thing; voting to treble fees was quite another. Justifiably, many Liberal Democrat voters feel betrayed.

Policy disagreements among Cabinet ministers have been confined to Conservative ranks rather than crossing party lines. Cameron is reported to have remarked that he gets more trouble from some of his Conservative colleagues than from Clegg. In part, the Lib Dems’ inability to constrain Cameron is a personnel problem: Of the 29 coalition ministers in the Cabinet, only five are Liberal Democrats. This might seem like a fair allocation of jobs, given that Conservative members of Parliament outnumber Liberal Democrat MPs 5 to 1.

But the distribution of roles and responsibilities within Cabinet suggests that the Lib Dems mistakenly prioritized securing control over electoral and constitutional reform at the expense of influence over more important policy areas. The three great offices of state — home secretary, chancellor of the Exchequer, and foreign secretary — are held by Conservatives.

The Lib Dems do not control any of the big spending departments and in many ministries must rely on junior ministers to represent their party’s interests.

As part of the coalition agreement, Clegg chose to become deputy prime minister, with special responsibility for constitutional reform: a policy area of little public salience.

The U.S. vice presidency might not, in the words of a past holder, be “worth a pitcher of cold piss,” but at least the VP holds a constitutionally mandated office with defined responsibilities.

The office of deputy prime minister has no such responsibilities and is usually a courtesy title bestowed on a senior party grandee. Clegg has an impressive title, but few important powers. Furthermore, Clegg is grossly under-resourced compared to Cameron. While the prime minister has 175 staff at his disposal, his deputy must make do with 13.

Clegg made a strategic mistake in becoming Cameron’s deputy. Better to have led a department of his own, such as health or education — both of which encompass policy areas close to the public’s heart, and where Clegg could have made a clear and identifiable difference.

Clegg has nailed his colors to Cameron’s mast. The two will sink or swim together. Short of pulling out of the coalition, Clegg has little power to constrain Cameron. But Clegg knows that leaving the coalition would precipitate a general election in which the Lib Dems would be severely punished.

Unless the Lib Dems decide to jettison Clegg, the coalition will likely limp on until the next election in 2015, with the Conservatives reaping all the benefits, and the Lib Dems all the blame.

Tina Burrett is assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan Campus.