Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 23 May 2011

How No2AV poisoned the coalition well

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

When the coalition first formed last May, I found myself in an odd position. Having been a member of and involved in campaigning for the Lib Dems and of course against the Conservatives, I now found myself as a member of a party that had 57 MPs, 5 cabinet ministers and a Deputy Prime Minister that were part of a government with the Conservatives and led by David Cameron.

Over the next few weeks and months I did start to find my perceptions of Cameron changing a little. I had previously seen him as a bit of a political chancer and had witnessed first hand his dissembling and obfuscation on the subject of drugs policy when I had questioned him at a "Cameron Direct" event. Various other things he had said and done, not least during the leader debates had only firmed up this view.

But his "open" offer of cooperation to the Lib Dems on the morning after the elections, combined with the fairly graceful way in which he seemed to be willing to share power and allow a decent chunk of the Lib Dem manifesto to be included in the government programme started a slight thawing of my view of him. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't about to send my application form for membership off to CCHQ or anything but things like the way he handled the Bloody Sunday inquiry announcement for example without trying to wriggle and the way he seemed to fit the role of PM pretty well was somewhat impressive.

I suspect that some other Lib Dems shared this rather odd feeling. After all, it's only natural when you see the leaders of your party day in, day out being nice and polite about the leaders and senior politicians of another party that at the very least you become a bit more willing to listen to their arguments and to an extent give them the benefit of the doubt. Of course there were aspects of the government programme I did not agree with but I generally had an optimistic and positive outlook about how the two parties in government were working and could work together in the future.

This all changed for me however in the last few weeks of the AV campaign.

If I had to pinpoint a moment, it was when the No2AV campaign released literature saying that AV would lead to broken promises and cited things like tuition fees etc. that they said were examples of Nick Clegg's broken promises.

I'm not arguing here about the rights and wrongs of the tuition fee decision. That has been debated endlessly elsewhere. What I am arguing is that for the Conservative led and funded No campaign to use the argument that their coalition partners had gone back on promises, when it was precisely because both parties were supposed to be coming together in the national interest, as Cameron had claimed he wanted on that Friday morning last May that those compromises had needed to be made was an utter betrayal. And I do not accept the argument that the No campaign was separate from the Conservatives. If Cameron had wanted to he could have stopped this line. He clearly wanted to win the campaign more than he wanted to preserve coalition cohesion and unity.

I suspect plenty will say I was naive to have expected anything else and they are probably right. Maybe I did get a little bit carried away with the idea that the two parties could genuinely do something new and work together without the usual politicking. But the result now is that any residual goodwill I had for Cameron and the Conservative leadership has been flushed down the toilet. I now have very little trust for them. And I suspect any other Lib Dems who may have had similar views to those I had last year will also have been given pause for thought.

If others across the party, including in parliament share my view, then in the long term this will be damaging for Cameron. With the Lib Dems both inside and outside the government now much more suspicious of his motives he will inevitably find it harder to get agreement. We are already seeing Nick Clegg standing firm on various aspects of the NHS reforms. The Tories can complain about what they perceive as "grandstanding" on this as much as they like but they have brought it on themselves. Clegg having a recent undisguised dig at Cameron on the NHS was only responding to the new ground rules laid down by Cameron during the AV campaign. Cameron is now a legitimate target for this sort of thing and it is his own fault. If he is going to allow attacks on the Lib Dems for "betraying their principles" then he is going to have to expect the party to damn well stand up more strongly for its principles.

Cameron probably felt he had no choice but to pull out all the stops to win the AV campaign and he may have been right. Had he lost it, defenestration may not have been far behind. But the way he went about it has poisoned the well of the coalition, certainly as far as I am concerned.

And he is going to have to get used to the Lib Dems now publicly as well as privately speaking their minds on all sorts of issues. After all, that's what his No2AV campaign demanded should happen didn't it, rather than "behind the scenes stitch ups"?


Guido Fawkes said...

You don't think Huhne was poisonous comparing Warsi to Goebbels?

Mark Thompson said...


Huhne's comments were over the top but Warsi's comments about AV and the BNP were complete rubbish and required a robust response.

And Huhne only made those comments after No2AV had already plumbed the depths. he was responding to the tone set by No.

TTC said...

It's interesting that you say 'No2AV' poisoned the "coalition well".

Why choose one side when both were pretty darn good at mudslinging?

I'm following the #spanishrevolution closely. The people of Spain who have camped out to protest at lying, cheating, duplicitous, corrupt politicians and their banker friends are from all political persuasions and none.

Can't see that happening here in the UK. Not for a long while. Not until we all put these darm political partisanships down and see things from both points of view and out into the bigger picture.

They're all corrupt, crooked, self-serving and duplicitous. Why take the side of one against the other when they're all as bad?

LondonStatto said...

"If I had to pinpoint a moment, it was when the No2AV campaign released literature saying that AV would lead to broken promises and cited things like tuition fees etc. that they said were examples of Nick Clegg's broken promises."

Promoted by the Labour side of the No campaign, not the Tory side.

Unknown said...

Given that Guido described Mark Pack as notable Nazi collaborator Lord Haw-Haw, he's hardly in a position to talk about others making similar comments.

And, of course, the difference being that Mark Pack had simply been telling the truth whilst Warsi had been telling out and out lies.