Sunday, 26 December 2010

A Challenging Week...

The week before Christmas is usually a time to wind down and get ready for some quality time with the people you love or, failing that, your family. For the Coalition though, it's been a week which started bad, got worse and has finished with a twist in the Boxing Day tail.

It all started with a "sting", perpetrated by that bastion of anti-Coalition Conservatism, the Daily Telegraph. This desperate rag, whose circulation has been steadily falling over the years, has turned its ire in rencent times on politicians. It was at the forefront of the expenses revelations in the spring of 2009 which damaged a number of leading political figures and ultimately brought three ex-Labour MPs to trial on various charges relating to fraud.

That was arguably a public service though as it turned out much of the opprobium heaped on MPs was unjustified as very few had actually done anything wrong. The system under which expenses were claimed was fundamentally flawed and the Telegraph performed a service in bringing this failure to light and instigating change but from there the paper developed an appetite for the witchh-hunt in which all MPs, even those claiming expenses for which they were reasonably justified, were pilloried.

Now, the paper has turned on Liberal Democrat Ministers within the Coalition Government. The Telegraph has an agenda here - it doesn't really like the Coalition. As it is led by a Conservative Prime Minister, it is obliged to be supportive but the Telegraph hates the idea of Liberal Democrats working with Conservatives in a Coalition presumably because the paper thinks the Liberal Democrats are diluting the true conservative nature of the Government.

The Telegraph, along with the Mail, Express and other parts of the pro-Conservative media desperately wanted a Conservative overall majority at the General Election. They would even have lived with a Conservative minority Government but the current Coalition is something they find hard to support. For elements such as these, breaking up the Coalition, preferrably by inciting the Liberal Democrats to walk away, would be the best option as another election would lead to a Conservative overall majority and keep the Liberal Democrats out of Government for a generation.

Hence the unprincipled sting - get female reporters, masquerading as Liberal Democrats supporters using false names and addresses, to contact their "local" Liberal Democrat MP and get them to talk, in the perceived privacy of their Constituency office, about their "concerns" about the Coalition.

The most damaging comments came from Business Secretary Vince Cable and they were about his attitude to Rupert Murdoch and the proposed takeover of BskyB by News International on which he (Cable) had to adjudicate. Stating that he had "declared war on Murdoch" was foolish and stupid and for that I'm afraid he should have resigned. While a Minister is entitled to his private view, these views cannot in any way be seen to be allowed to influence any decision-making. It probably hasn't helped that the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to whom the responsibility for adjudicating in the matter was transferred, is equally suspect owing to his outrageously pro-Murdoch views.

Cable was publically humilated and really should have quit. The other comments made by Liberal Democrat MPs were slightly embarrassing but no more. They reveal some of the tensions within the Coalition but it does seem that working relationships WITHIN Government Departments between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have been very good and there have been some surprising "alliances" eg: Nick Clegg and Iain Duncan-Smith are rumoured to have a particularly good working relationship. Equally unsurprisingly, there are those who do not get along so well. This happens in ALL organisations and happened in majority one-party Governments in the past - remember the feuds between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and John Major calling some of his Cabinet colleagues "bastards".

Indeed, one could argue that the Coalition has been more harmonious internally than some had expected and while areas of policy have proved very difficult (tuition fees being the prime example but also law and order) and the political handling of these issues has been fraught, there's no sense in which the Coalition itself is in any danger. Indeed, David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood up well under heavy media fire at their joint Press Conference earlier in the week.

Today the Sunday Telegraph puts the cat among the pigeons with an unnamed Conservative Minister, supposedly close to David Cameron, suggesting there could be "Coalition" candidates at the 2015 General Election. Now, this is red-reg stuff for the bulls in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties and could be construed as a bit of mischief-making. At this time, I don't detect any appetite in either party to go down the route of joint candidates. There are many in the Conservative activist camp who don't like what appears to be a move by the leadership to prevent the Conservative winning in Oldham East & Saddleworth on January 13th. There are plenty of Tories who would relish seeing the Liberal Democrats finish a poor third even if Labour win if that was the alternative to a Liberal Democrat victory.

The Coalition is still a new thing - barely eight months old - and there is a long way to go and a l0t of heavy water to pass through. The referendum on AV next May will be a huge test - many Conservatives will actively campaign and vote to retain FPTP while Labour supporters will be torn between their desire to break the Coalition and the likelihood that AV (if passed) will likely prevent a Conservative majority ever happening again.

The impact of the spending cuts will be hard to assess - the economy is growing but that growth is slaready showing signs of faltering and the bad weather leading up to Christmas will be a real problem for some businesses.

It will be a tough 2011 for the Coalition and there are some dark days ahead especially for the Liberal Democrats but beyond that there's a real prospect of a sustainable and lasting if modest recovery and a growing perception that the Government has done what it set out to do.

(Look out for the annual "Stodgies" awards this Friday, New Years Eve).

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