The rose garden romance is well and truly over
Alittle under a year ago, David Cameron held a party at Downing Street to thank all of those who had helped the Tory general election campaign. It was a bittersweet occasion: although Cameron was Prime Minister, the Tories had failed to win a majority. In his speech, Cameron told them that coalition was actually better than a small Tory majority. For the people who had worked tirelessly for the election of a Tory government, these words left a sour taste. But in those heady, early months of the coalition, with the scent of the rose garden hanging in the Downing Street air, most observers could see what Cameron meant. The coalition was planning to address the deficit, free schools from local authority control and fundamentally reform welfare. Crucially, the Liberal Democrats were acting not as a brake against this radicalism but as a catalyst for it.
A year on, Cameron would not make the same speech. Over the past 12 months, he and his circle have begun to see the pitfalls of coalition. They have realised the extent to which sharing power prevents them from dealing with the country’s problems. Now, their aim above all else is to win the next election outright and dump the Lib Dems.
In the coalition’s first few months, the normal laws of politics seemed to have been suspended. At the centre of government,Tories and Liberal Democrats worked seamlessly together.They gushed about how they believed in the same things, but gave them different names. The two parties even held joint political cabinets together. For one meeting they travelled out on a minibus to Chequers to discuss how best to scupper Labour. The Cameroons were so keen on the coalition that one Cabinet minister told me that the Lib Dems would be invited to stay in government even if the Tories won a small majority at the next election. One got the impression that a large Tory majority would be an inconvenience, as it would have stood in the way of keeping their new friends in office.
Perhaps the most significant example of the Tory high command’s initial love of coalition was how they began to get interested in that old Lib Dem hobby-horse, electoral reform. A referendum on the alternative vote, a system that would boost the number of Liberal Democrat MPs, had been Cameron’s compromise to Clegg to get the Liberal Democrats into government. Yet as the
coalition worked so well in those first few months, the Cameroons began to wonder if they should actively support AV, or at least not oppose it. They began to see it as an easy way of forging an electoral pact and an antiLabour alliance with their new friends.
The machine swung into action. Cameron told Clegg that he wouldn’t do much campaigning during the AV referendum. One Conservative intellectual was asked to start making the Conservative case for AV. Meanwhile, Michael Gove, one of the Cabinet ministers closest to Cameron, was ready to back AV publicly. But by New Year all this had changed. The Cameroons were throwing everything into defeating AV and were happy to let the No campaign trash Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems in the process.
Cameron and his circle have begun to see the pitfalls of coalition over the past year
The Tory shift is the result of fear and frustration. The fear is over what the party would do to Cameron if he lost the AV referendum. The frustration is with how the presence of the Lib Dems makes achieving radical reform in government — overcoming the legislative obstacles of Brussels, Strasbourg and the equality act — even more difficult.
The AV referendum was always going to force Cameron to choose between his party and his coalition. He has plumped decisively for the former. The coalition will now never be the same again.
For their part, the Lib Dems are furious at what they see as Cameron’s betrayal.They complain that Cameron gave Clegg his word that he wouldn’t campaign hard against AV
and that it will now be almost impossible for them to trust the Prime Minister again. They also stress that Cameron’s behaviour has strengthened anti-coalition sentiment within their ranks. As a result, Clegg has had to put more and more distance between himself and Cameron. They are now reassessing their whole approach to the coalition. For instance, co-ordinated assaults on Labour are now off the agenda.
Some Liberal Democrats have gone further and started attacking the Conservatives directly. Two Cabinet ministers, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne, have urged people to vote for AV to keep the Tories out of power in future: a far cry from the discussions last summer about how best to keep Labour out of power for a generation.
The Tories are confident that such Lib Dem whinging will come to nothing. They point out that they have nowhere to go, that to bring down the coalition and spark a general election would lead to at least half of all Lib Dem MPs losing their seats. One Tory MP close to the leadership jokes that ‘we’ve got them by the balls and now we’re squeezing them a bit’.
But this assumes that the Liberal Democrats will act in their own best interests, when they are notorious for not doing so. There is also a growing chance that a Liberal Democrat will challenge Clegg for the leadership. Certainly Chris Huhne appears to be doing everything necessary to prepare for a leadership bid. He shocked colleagues this week by launching a verbal assault on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor at a Cabinet meeting. He brusquely demanded that they justify various claims by the No campaign. Osborne’s response was sharp: ‘this is a Cabinet meeting, not some sub-Jeremy Paxman interview’. As one Tory minister said afterwards, ‘it is hard to see how Huhne can stay in the Cabinet having behaved like this.’
In No. 10, they have had discussions about what they would do if Clegg were deposed by his own party. One option under consideration would be simply to keep him on as Deputy Prime Minister: there is, they claim, no constitutional requirement that the leader of the minority coalition party should be offered that job title. But such a course of action would surely bring the government’s problems to boiling point.
SPECTATOR.CO.UK/COFFEEHOUSE For all the referendum aftermath the spectator | 7 May 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
The Americans committed an extra-judicial killing this week, violating the sovereign territory of a friendly power, and reaching bin Laden’s lair because of information obtained outside legal process at Guantanamo Bay. And a good thing too, in the circumstances. But it is fascinating how little protest there has been from the people who are usually noisiest about any infringements of international law, and of human rights as currently interpreted. This must be because the perpetrator is Barack Obama. He has behaved exactly as George W. Bush would have done — ruthlessly, violently and unilaterally — but without the odium from the BBC, Channel 4, the Liberal Democrats etc etc which Mr Bush would have attracted. There was a theory, shorthanded as ‘Nixon Goes To China’, that only the right could do a deal with the communist world. There should now be an equivalent, called ‘Obama Goes To Abbottabad’, for how only the left can kill terrorists.
As one gets older, one reviews the course of one’s life. I am exactly the same age as Osama bin Laden, so his death provokes reflection. Anyone with any streak of egotism must feel slightly envious of bin Laden’s great fame and mage-like mystique, but on the whole I am grateful not to have had his career. Many of us pseudo-intellectuals, when young, have dreadful ideas about violently improving the world, but in a decent university education, these urges are channelled harmlessly. Bin Laden had the misfortune to attend King Abdel Aziz University in Jeddah and to fall under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood and the teaching of Abdullah Azzam, a jihadist theologian. The rest is bloody history. At Cambridge, potential fanatics like myself were influenced by thinkers like Maurice Cowling and Edward Norman, and ended up doing nothing more noxious than editing things and writing splenetic columns. That is how civilisation works.
After considerable research among guests and participants in Westminster Abbey last Friday, and among what newspapers call ‘informed observers’, here are your columnist’s findings, in roughly ascending order of importance:
1. ‘Fascinators’ are not fascinating: they are now, rightly, on the way out.
2. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson ‘looked like a bottle of Harpic’.
3. The Archbishop of Canterbury might have benefited from a haircut.
4. Mrs Cameron should have worn a hat (personally I disagree on this point, because I thought her three Erdem studs, or whatever you call them, were elegant, but I am reporting what women tell me).
5. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown should have been asked, but it was marvellous that they weren’t there.
6. The Dean has a long-standing policy of ‘quelling’ any attempt at clapping in a service. As the couple walked down the aisle, a few foreigners and a Catholic bishop had an attempt to get it going, but luckily they failed.
7. Although it was perfectly true that ‘all walks of life’ were well represented, there was a block pretty much full of the Prince’s Eton friends (plus girls) and therefore referred to as ‘College Chapel’. It is interesting how close-knit this set must be, because the gossip columns and photographers have almost completely failed to crack their omertà.
8. It was the celebrities rather than the grandees who had the fiercer sense of entitlement. When Sir Elton John found himself in a position of insufficient prominence, his civil partner, David Furnish, was seen to remonstrate with an usher. A more visible position was found for the couple. On the way out, a friend heard Sir Elton complain: ‘Well, it wasn’t exactly the Oscars, was it?’ No, it wasn’t, Deo gratias.
9. The BBC, though perfectly pleasant in tone, was grossly short of good information.
One reason Huw Edwards kept pointing out Sir Elton and the Beckhams was that he didn’t seem to know who anyone else was. Yet the viewer is eager for all sorts of minor information. Who was that man standing beside the Beckhams in the queue? (Answer, not given by the BBC: Lord Tollemache, Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk). Who were those nuns who sat beside the couple for the address? (Answer, ditto: Sister Judith and Sister Annalise from the Community of the Sisters of the Church, Ham Common; Sister Judith is chaplain to the Abbey). When you watch racing on television there is always someone who knows all the runners and says useful things like ‘He came a good third at Haydock last season’. Why cannot the BBC bother with the equivalent?
10. One friend present at the service who had already seen Kate Middleton on official engagements was struck by a realisation as the service proceeded. ‘She’s got the job she wanted,’ he said to himself. He did not mean that she had been pushy. He meant that she actually understood and welcomed the role now being laid upon her. An American friend noticed the same thing. She compares the Duchess of Cambridge with Mrs Obama — a woman so confident in her modernity that she feels nothing wrong in being the wife.
11. The feeling of goodwill was overwhelming. Everyone thought what was happening was right. Even those who deal with weddings professionally, and might therefore be blasé, noted that the couple, though rightly nervous, were at ease with one another throughout. There was a lovely feeling that they were equal: they perfectly knew what they were doing, and wanted to do it. It was happy because the words of the Book of Common Prayer meant so much. It was happy because it was serious.
The Economist, published on the day of the wedding, covered it only thus: ‘A young man and his fiancée were expected to get married in central London on 29 April. Millions of Britons took advantage of the opportunity to take a foreign holiday.’ Strange how the cleverest often miss the most.
the spectator | 7 May 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk