This morning Fishburn Hedges facilitated the debate: “What’s Next… for the Coalition?”. The panel consisted of thought-leading MPs from the three main parties – Nick Boles (C), Norman Lamb (LD), Tristram Hunt (L) – and was chaired by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.
Nick Boles was very clear that the Coalition will last the full term. This is not because of any ideology, but because the amount of political capital invested by both sides is huge. According to Boles, Cameron and Clegg have dug a trench around the Coalition, filled it with oil and set it alight. In his view any MP who wants the Coalition to end before 2015 is “mad”.
Norman Lamb still strongly believes that the formation of a partnership between Conservatives and Lib Dems was in the interests of both his party and the country. For Lamb the health debate has demonstrated what coalitions can achieve. He used the Poll Tax as an example of how single party governments plough on with bad legislation, regardless of any sensible warnings they get. Lamb sees the Lib Dems as being the centrist safety valve, ensuring that the country is governed by Conservative-lite.
For Lamb the NHS settlement has left the Coalition in better health compared with how Lib Dems felt post-AV referendum. While he was speaking I couldn’t help but think that Coalition moral seems to be operating on a pendulum. As the morale of one-side rises the morale of the other automatically dips. From Tristram Hunt’s perspective the “car crash policy making” process on the NHS was all about ensuring that Nick Clegg can have a comfortable conference in the Autumn.
On the economy Nick Boles and Norman Lamb were like a married couple, instinctively finishing each others sentences. The message was that it clearly is not going to be easy to deal with the structural deficit but given that confidence and stability is the foundation of growth it is in the interest of all of us, especially the most vulnerable, that the public finances are sorted out. Lamb was strong in insisting that despite some Lib Dem backbenchers raising concerns over this or that cut, his party was strongly supportive of the Coalition’s economic aims. They became convinced that this was the right strategy – with the help of advice from the Bank of England – during the coalition negotiations.
It was on the subject of the economy where the discussion became most heated. Tristram Hunt passionately declared that it was not in his constituents interest for their swimming pool or library to be shut down. For him the Coalition was the triumph of the economic liberals over the social liberals. When Hunt stated as fact that coalitions have to come up with ‘their’ crises in order to hold themselves together, Boles was quick to point out that the current situation was actually a Labour created crisis. When challenged on how Labour would deal with the economic problems Hunt insisted that it was not the job of opposition to be precise. Laura Kuenssberg mentioned that she is hearing rumours that the two Eds were considering committing Labour to a big – totemic – cut in order to show economic competence. Norman Lamb inevitably dragged the conversation back to focusing on the benefit of coalitions, especially the Lib Dems moderating influence. For him the Coalition can be braver when making economy decisions than a Conservative administration that had a small majority.