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Coalition politics: the enemy within

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 20 May 2010

As the Conservatives and the Lib Dems release the full details of their coalition agreement, independent political analyst Greg Callus looks at the difficulties and rifts facing all three parties.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg (credit:Reuters)

There is an apocryphal story, to be found in most advanced democracies, of a fresh-faced neophyte entering the legislative chamber for the first time. Realising that he is sat next to a veteran legislator, he voices his enthusiasm and eagerness to "engage the enemy" in the form of the other party.

The years of experience wearily raise themselves to reply that "the party over there, son, are not the enemy, they are the opposition. The enemy are to be found sitting behind you".

That view might be greeted with a wry sense of understanding by frontbench politicians of all colours at Westminster this week.

New relationship troubles
With the new coalition government still in its infancy, the media has turned its attention to the slightest whiff of splits, factionalism and troubles in the new relationship.

More Channel 4 News coverage of the new coalition politics:
- Who Knows Who: the coalition cabinet
- Coalition deal: the winners and losers
- Dealing with a marriage of convenience

As though in anticipation of this, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have made clear the intention for their relationship to be long and fruitful, and the new deputy prime minister was yesterday fronting ambitious plans for constitutional change and civil liberties protection.

But as the relationship within the cabinet seems to be blossoming nicely, the relationships between leaders and their parties are expected to take the toll.

Nick Clegg clearly has the support of the overwhelming majority of people who voted Lib Dem at the 2010 general election, but there are some voices of disquiet who would have preferred a "progressive coalition" with Labour and the minor parties instead.

Coalition past
Polling from ComRes indicates about a third of the party membership (who are widely thought to be to the left of Clegg's Orange Book wing of the party) are unhappy, and senior figures such as Charles Kennedy have told the media that they could not support such a deal, or that redlines would have to be drawn ad underlined.

Any potential split in the Lib Dem ranks has to be seen in light of the fact that the party has always been a coalition itself – between the old Liberals (now manifested as the Orange Book wing) and the ex-Labour/SDP membership who are fairly solidly of the left.

Though the party's support in a poll since the general election saw their support drop just three points (around the margin of error), there appears to be broad support for the coalition government at this stage.

What activists in the Lib Dems may miss in their dismay is that the performance of the party is often far less related to its political positioning, and more closely correlated with its prominence in the media.

During election campaigns, where broadcast rules insist on equitable coverage for the three major parties, the Lib Dems do much better in the polls. Clegg will be gambling that for every vote he loses over ideological objections to supporting the Tories, he can gain one or more by introducing the party to voters who would usually forget about them between general elections.

David Cameron is facing a different challenge – the Conservative party accepted almost entirely without grumbling his "detoxification" strategy, and were largely content to allow some movement on traditional policy to win back power.

Euroskeptic vs Europhile
That said, being forced into coalition at the price of getting their hands on Number 10 has irked many, especially on the Euroskeptic right (the Lib Dems are perhaps the most pro-EU party in parliament), and they are watching carefully to see how much is given to Clegg in the form of policy decision-making.

International editor Lindsey Hilsum on the Conservatives and Europe:
How Euroskeptic will Mr Hague sound as he represents Britain around the world? These days it's hard to put out one message for your recalcitrant back-benchers and a different one for everyone else.

Maybe the presence of Lib Dems in the coalition will make it easier for him apologetically to spurn the anti-Europe tendency. He has said that he has no desire to provoke a confrontation with European partners.

Funny how the differences talked up in the election campaign can seem so easy to play down when needs must.

Much of Cameron's troubles will likely centre around Europe. Unlike the previous Tory prime ministers, he inherited a party that had largely moved passed its brutal fights over EU integration (Heath, Thatcher, Major – all were ultimately victims of the irreconcilable conflict within the Conservative party over Europe).

Purged of all but a handful of Europhiles (Ken Clarke being the notable anomaly in the cabinet), David Cameron's Conservatives are overwhelmingly Euroskeptic to a greater or lesser degree. Fate must have a black sense of humour to pair him with Nick Clegg's Europhiles (David Heath excepted), ensuring that no Tory government would be able to command an overall majority on any EU issue before them.

With the necessity of further ratification of the Lisbon Treaty still uncertain, the EU fight is being fought as a proxy war. There was disappointment, for example, that the deputy PM's bill did not include any sort of repeal or amendment to the Human Rights Act.

Tories had largely wanted this substantially replaced by a "British Bill of Rights" (rejecting the supremacy of the European Court on Human Rights) but this idea seems to have been kicked to the long grass for the time being. As though, again, anticipating the problems that co-ordinated ideological rightists could cause his compromise coalition, Cameron has decided to move against them early.

David Cameron today won his battle that the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers should include those on the frontbenches and government payroll in voting membership.

This practice – which is how the committee works in opposition – would neuter criticism of the PM by backbench members of his own party, and would allow him greater control of how the parliamentary party operates.

David Cameron has picked a fight early on with a group of mostly-right wing Tory MPs who had already questioned the new "55 per cent for dissolution" proposals, and some of whom were sore at being kept out of jobs by the Liberal Democrats.

Labour leadership
Labour faces a different type of internecine conflict: the upcoming leadership election. Ed Balls, brothers David and Ed Miliband, John McDonnell, and now Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott are all declared candidates.

The Labour party, in its post-mortem of the general election, faces a choice as to whether it perpetuates the New Labour project, or returns to rebuild the leftist heartland vote in working class areas apparently still angry at the former government for loosening immigration, and for the Iraq war.

More Channel 4 News coverage of the Labour leadership election:
- Labour leader to be crowned in September
- Labour leadership: how a contest works
- Labour leadership: the likely contenders

Even if the candidacy of John McDonnell doesn't get very far, the New Labour candidates will have to at least pay significant lip service to the powerful union backers who (alongside the PLP and the party membership) make up a third of the party's Electoral College.

These bigger names might share much in common in terms of policy, but the shadows of a now-passed pseudo-conflict remain. David Miliband was, and indeed is, very much the heir to the Blairite throne. His brother Ed and his namesake Ed Balls were more closely identified with the Brownite faction.

The system of preferential voting means that predictions will be complicated, but the presence of four recent cabinet ministers in the poll could factionalise a party in the midst of defeat.

Factionalism is usually dealt with by a new leader inviting rivals into key positions, or purging them from all positions of notability and power – neither will be straightforward for the new Labour leader, given that when the party is in opposition, the shadow cabinet is itself largely elected by the parliamentary Labour party on an annual basis.

Party fault lines
So Nick Clegg is forced to navigate his party's fault line between Orange Book liberalism (with power and media attention) and a large voter and activist base further to his left. David Cameron has to balance keeping Nick Clegg in government according to the coalition deal, whilst either quashing or appeasing his Euroskeptic right-wingers (the inheritors of John Major's "Bastards") on the 1922 Committee.

The Labour party, in the meanwhile, will likely opt to retain its New Labour direction (the return to opposition and the reminder of what losing elections feels like being perhaps the best antidote to the siren voices of socialism in the party), but this will not prevent a running factionalism (the legacy of Blair vs Brown saga) that could impede the new leader's best efforts at electoral recovery.

At a time when the leaders of the major parties have scarcely ever been closer together ideologically, each will be forced to keep a tight rein on the more rabid partisans in their own organisations. The opposition might sit at the other dispatch box, but the enemy is most likely to be found on the backbenches..

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