Given that all polls are predicting anything from a wipeout to a carcrash for the Yes campaign, and the Lib Dems are still polling in the low teens (let’s be generous and give them a bit of slack…), my thoughts inevitably turn to what happens next.
There have been all sorts of predictions, mostly leaning towards either a collapse of the Coalition, or at the very least some serious wobbles and many Conservative concessions to keep the Lib Dems on board. I disagree. And I dispute that such things should even be considered.
Almost exactly a year ago, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems took a big, brave decision to form a full Coalition. They signed an interim and then a full Coalition Agreement.
Since then, there have been some shifts – for example, the Lib Dems, stupidly but to their great credit, decided to fully engage with the tuition fees proposals and ensure that they were the best they could be. This has done them great damage but they took the decision themselves, wanted to make the policy better, and did what they thought was in the national interest. As another example, the Tories, until recently, bent over backwards to make sure that people believed the Lib Dems were a moderating influence on the Conservatives (I happen to think this isn’t true and is a dangerous tactic but I’ve been over that before so will leave it there).
I have been having The Conversation at work repeatedly about what happens next. Does a Lib Dem minister resign? Do the Tories give the Lib Dems more concessions? Does David Cameron go for broke and call an election?
I confess I’m not convinced. I’m finding it hard to think what the Tories could really give way on – Lords reform, one of the two main ideas that seem to be doing the rounds, was in both manifestos, has been voted on, and isn’t really a Tory/Lib Dem split anyway. The NHS proposals are the other one but that’s, well… unlikely, because the NHS is THE political totem for the Tories’ modernisation and for David Cameron personally, and he is using a lot of capital defending the government’s plans, and, crucially, Andrew Lansley.
So what was on the Lib Dems’ list of priorities? Leaving aside that they are all rather vague, I’d argue that the only one that isn’t visibly and emphatically underway is the bit about greener jobs. Which I’d be very happy to have the government focus more on.
I’m thinking that not much will change. The Coalition Agreement allowed for a referendum on AV. The Lib Dems chose the date, and the question, and were allowed to get on with it. If (as seems likely) they have failed to win the argument, that’s their problem. They and we signed that Agreement. I voted for politicians who I believe will do the right thing. I am, as I’ve said before, perfectly happy with this Coalition – but (and I am saying this in an entirely un-gendered way) the government needs to man up.
That agreement was made behind closed doors, between politicians, and with no input from voters, which as I’ve said before I wasn’t totally happy with but it happened so that was that, and I suspect it means that there will be greater demands from the media next time for all parties to outline their red lines and so on.
Yes, it was an exceptional time and all that, but having made the Agreement, they need to stick to it. As importantly, they need to deliver it, and deliver it well. They have another four years before the next general election – time that the Lib Dems need to resolve their problems of trust, and (and this is the big one for them) to prove that they are not a wasted vote because they can be sensible in government. And it’s time the Tories need as well, to show that we are good people, who can be trusted not to slash and burn, and who can again be trusted to do the right thing.
So I think that not much will change. There will be a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but governing will go on as usual (though I make my usual plea for better narratives, communication and focus on what’s actually important).
Someone recently contacted me to apologise for having been rude during a conversation we had. He was rude (no doubt he thought I was as well). But he was also wrong. When I was little, my granny used to tell me that if someone is wrong and you are proved right, it is far more galling for them for you to be hugely gracious and magnanimous rather than stamp your feet and crow. That’s what the Tories should do. We talk a lot about being a responsible party, used to government, used to clearing up Labour’s mess. We should therefore absolutely be able to rise above the Lib Dems’ private grief over AV, remind them of why the Coalition came together in the first place, and help them to help us to get on with delivering it well.