Britains Coalition Government Frays Ahead of National Referendum

With the royal couple’s wedding over, all eyes are on Britain’s tense Coalition government as the two sides of the once happy coupling battle over electoral reform. Peter Hoskin reports from London.

The other marriage that has captivated Britain is already going through a difficult patch. Yes, Dave and Nick, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the two halves of the coalition government, are writhing in mutual mistrust and misgiving. A relationship that began so flirtatiously, a year ago, in the rose garden of No.10 Downing Street is discovering the thorny political differences that exist underneath the blossom.

It was, to some extent, ever going to be thus. A government created by splicing together two different parties — one more of the right, one more of the left—was always going to have its tense moments. And this springtime was always going to deliver the worst of them. Thursday, May 5, is the date of a national referendum on a new voting system for Britain’s general elections. The Liberal Democrats, who demanded the referendum as a price for joining the coalition, and are always keen on voting systems that might broaden their thin presence in Parliament, are campaigning for the new “Alternative Vote” (AV). The Conservatives are campaigning to keep the existing “First Past the Post” mechanism. Stir in the local elections that are also taking place, and the two parties are remembering just what it meant to oppose each other.

There are some who had hoped this might be a constructive process (as one Conservative member of parliament put it to me, “this was our chance to prove, for good, that we could debate like adults on any matter”). But they hadn’t counted on just how many destructive factors would be at work. As the Liberal Democrats have stared further into the abyss of next week’s results—most likely, defeat for AV and a hammering in the local elections—their fury has multiplied. One Lib Dem minister, Chris Huhne, has repeatedly attacked David Cameron and George Osborne, the Conservative prime minster and chancellor, respectively, for the arguments they are deploying against the new voting system; even going so far — as my Spectator colleague James Forsyth revealed Tuesday—as to confront the two men in a meeting of cabinet. While, for his part, Cameron has not only trashed the Lib Dems’ pleas for a new voting system, but some of their pet policies, too. Even allowing for choreographed and exaggerated disagreement, it has been vicious stuff.

So vicious, in fact, that it has inspired dread speculation about the coalition not lasting the full five-year term, and instead breaking apart this year. This is unlikely for all sorts of reasons—chief among them that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came together on a vow to bring stability to Britain’s wobbly economy, and that requires stability of government. But the very fact of this speculation says something about how sour the relationship has become.

“Their personal relationship was never as absurdly close as some observers suggested, but neither is it as damaged as others are suggesting now,” says one member of government.

This puts Cameron and his Liberal Democrat counterpart, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, in a weird spot. “Their personal relationship was never as absurdly close as some observers suggested, but neither is it as damaged as others are suggesting now,” says one member of government, “It is friendly and mature.” And yet, for the sake of their parties and for the longevity of the coalition, the two men are signing up for the political equivalent of marriage counseling sessions. Meetings have been held to discuss just how the two sides can repair their differences after Thursday’s elections.

So far, much of the focus has been on the short-term: the quick fixes that can calm the baying Lib Dems, as well as reinforce Clegg’s increasingly beleaguered position. In effect, this means pressing ahead with the policies agreed at the start of the coalition—but slapping a slightly different varnish across them. Unity will be maintained on the grand project of trimming Britain’s budget deficit. But smaller policies, such as reform of our upper house of parliament, will be sold even more so as Liberal Democrat triumphs. Dividing lines between the two parties will be traced in the sand.

The long-term is the hazier, more unknowable territory. There is, of course, the possibility that time will be the great healer it is advertised as. The coalition is not going to face a referendum on the voting system, nor even a less promising set of local elections, every year. This is, in a way, a particularly fraught one-off. If the coalition can get through this period, then it will find an easier and happier trail before it—particularly should the economy start to recover at pace.

Or at least that’s the theory. Yet, as we know, theories—especially those of the political sort—have a habit of not translating into practice. Even if Clegg is spared from the knives of his party, even if he and the prime minister can avoid the immediate dangers of the months ahead, there is a sense that this coalition has been diminished. Only a few months ago, commentators were mooting the possibility of a full merger between the two parties. A Conservative MP, one who is close to Cameron, even wrote a book on the topic. Yet now, ever more, the emphasis is not on where the two parties’ ideologies overlap, but on where they differ. Those pressing for even closer union, a formal Liberal Conservatism, are looking more isolated. Those who are eager to define the parties against each other have been provoked and encouraged.

“Things won’t quite be the same from now on,” is how one MP sums up the situation — and he’s right. British politics has gone fissile. No one can quite predict the chain reactions.

Peter Hoskin has been in and around the worlds of politics and journalism since graduating from university in 2006. He currently runs the Spectator's political blog, Coffee House, and writes about cinema, literature and culture as much as he can.