- 22 June 2012
- From the section UK Politics
One of the features of the Jeremy Hunt affairs was that the Lib Dems' failure to back the embattled Culture Secretary, last week, seemed to give the considerable contingent of backbench Tories who dislike the Coalition a chance to re-state their long-held views and have them treated as news.
So Bernard Jenkin, who has enjoyed a significant and productive couple of years chairing the Public Administration Committee, gets to repeat his opposition to Lords reform, and Peter Bone, who has never liked the coalition, gets to call for it to be dissolved.
In truth, a lot of Conservative MPs are finding life with the Lib Dems more than a little irritating. And Mr Bone thinks they would be far happier if David Cameron were to switch to a minority government, relying on the divisions among Opposition parties to get legislation through.
Hmm. The grass is always greener - or bluer - on the other side of the hill. Mr Bone would like to see a pure Tory government pushing through pure Tory policies, concentrating on the vote-winners, then seizing its moment to call another election. He rightly points out that the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which sets the date for the next election in May 2015, is not a complete obstacle to an early election; it contains several get-out clauses, including allowing the Speaker to call an election (sorry, request a dissolution of Parliament) if no government can be formed, or for an election to be held if two-thirds of the Commons vote for it.
I'm unconvinced. The Tories are 19 seats short of an overall majority - 13 seats, if you discount the five Sinn Fein MPs who, in line with their long-standing policy, don't take their seats; plus the Speaker, who only votes in a tied division. But no chief whip would want to operate on such margins - what about illness, MPs stuck on planes or in traffic jams? What about the obvious fact that in this Parliament MPs are far more likely to defy their party whip?
No single party other than the Lib Dems could top up Tory numbers and deliver a majority. So, absent Lib Dem support, the Conservative whips would have to cobble together the votes of smaller parties - with only the Northern Ireland DUP offering any degree of close ideological sympathy. (And, incidentally, it's a big mistake to imagine the DUP is some kind of Northern Ireland franchise of the the Conservatives - they have a quite different history and voter base, and will be subject to specific Northern Ireland pressures which a Westminster government might be loathe to be influenced by.)
Try getting through controversial measures like those on welfare reform, or legal aid, or, of course, the NHS, through constant negotiation with a shifting alliance of micro-parties. Try explaining to English voters the pay-offs that would be necessary to secure nationalist votes in Wales or Scotland.
And remember that Jim Callaghan's Labour government - the last example of a minority government - ultimately fell because a) it failed to deliver Scottish devolution, thus losing the support of the SNP; b) it upset the SDLP's Gerry Fitt by granting extra parliamentary seats to meet the demands of Ulster Unionists and c) then lost the Unionists anyway, because it refused to stump up to build a gas pipeline to Northern Ireland.
In other words, the process of securing minority party support became increasingly messy, even squalid.
Even before that final crunch, Callaghan's deputy chief whip, the legendary Walter Harrison, faced a daily battle, division by division, to avoid a Commons defeat. Sick MPs were stretchered in and out. A rota of whips had to survive long drinking sessions with the Northern Ireland republican MP Frank McGuire, to keep him sweet. And on one famous occasion he arranged for a Conservative MP with a strong interest in the Royal Navy to be in mid-Atlantic observing a NATO exercise, when a crucial division came up. These are the tactics on which minority administrations rely for survival.
Now, to be sure, the coalition has now passed its most controversial legislation - but look what happened to the Budget, earlier this year, even with the protection of Lib Dem votes. The state of the economy is such that all budgets for the foreseeable future will be tough and unpopular. And those budgets and other "tough decisions" would be liable to be unpicked, if they're not protected by a parliamentary majority - not least because some of the most powerful critics were, er, Conservatives. A working majority allows a bit of room for internal dissent; minority government might face a lot of backbench Conservatives with some pretty unpalatable choices - between their consciences or electoral interests, and the survival of their party in government.
And that's leaving aside the implications for the nation, in these unhappy times.
Now, of course, there may come a moment when a minority Conservative administration would welcome a defeat which then triggered an election, at a moment when they were confident of victory. But that would rely on the other parties allowing them to build up their position by passing popular measures….. not completely probable.
Which brings me to my final point. There are - of course - ideological and policy divisions between the Conservatives and their Lib Dem partners; they are, after all separate organisations which have spent decades fighting each other. But some of the biggest Coalition splits are within the Conservatives….few Tory backbenchers imagine that, but for Nick Clegg raising a majestic hand to halt them, the Conservatives would by now have held an in-out referendum on Europe, or, come to that, a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
Many suspect that the Lib Dems provide their leaders with a convenient alibi for not delivering such things.