According to an interview he did with the UK’s Sun newspaper last week, an exhausted David Cameron was waking up to the radio news the other day when he heard a story about the Prime Minister, which began: "Today the Prime Minster will … " Instinctively and immediately Cameron responded, "Oh God, what’s he doing now?" In a flash, he thought again: "Oh no, hang on a second, that’s me".
Cameron isn’t the only one struggling to keep up with events in the British political scene, as the country rushes to comprehend the implications of the "new politics" being touted by the Prime Minister and his Deputy PM, Nick Clegg. But it should be remembered that the political marriage behind the new politics is one based on convenience, not love, between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaderships. And while they seem determined to make their coalition work, the decision has not pleased everyone in either party. To be sure, there are those who believe the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will survive the full five year parliamentary term, but there are also plenty who don’t.
Read what senior Conservative statesman and former deputy prime minister, Lord Michael Heseltine forecast on the weekend as the Government began designing its first round of budget cuts behind closed doors: "We are living in a false dawn. The sun is shining. Let’s enjoy it. It is not going to last very long … there is a rocky road ahead."
There are plenty of reasons to share Heseltine’s reservations. With Britain’s public debt at near-record levels and events in Europe clearly showing the need to reduce it, the decisions necessary to achieve this goal will put the coalition under immense strain. Will the Liberal Democrats agree to raising the Value Added Tax (the UK’s GST) which may be controversial but highly necessary, or will the axe fall on welfare spending, which would please the Conservatives more?
With Britain’s overall budget deficit at the $270 billion mark, the financial markets are demanding action, and cuts of as much as $100 billion will be needed in the next few years. The country already has over two million unemployed, and with spending cuts likely to add hundreds of thousands of public servants to the dole queues, such cuts will be politically very difficult to achieve, new politics or old politics. Tax rises present their own political difficulties. Undoubtedly, the speed at which the deficit is tackled will be the issue the coalition needs to work most closely on. (On a positive note, one thing both partners seem to agree on is reform of the banking sector.)
If disagreements do ever get out of hand, the party leaders will direct the matter to a committee set up for the purpose of resolving disputes and keeping them private. A current proposal to make dissolving the parliament more difficult by requiring 55 per cent to agree before the Prime Minister can call an election is a much more controversial attempt to shore up the coalition. Its defenders describe it as a stabilisation mechanism to bolster the proposed fixed five-year term parliament, but voices from across the political spectrum condemn it as undemocratic. To them, it shows that the coalition is unstable and needs propping up. For the Liberal Democrats, it is insurance against the Conservatives seizing on favourable opinion polls to call a snap election.
Meanwhile the Lib Dems are saying that the coalition deal will deliver a referendum on voting reform, the reduction of the number of electorates, an elected House of Lords and voter initiated recalls of non-performing MPs.
Certainly, there is a resolve at the top to make the coalition work and confound the legions of doubters. For Cameron, the coalition is quickly being seen as a very convenient opportunity for him to rebrand the Conservative party in the same way that Tony Blair rebranded Labour in the 1990s. Remember that Cameron has previously described himself as a "liberal conservative". This coalition gives him a tremendous opportunity to sideline the more traditional right wing of his party, the doubters of his "Big Society", while repositioning the Conservatives in the centre of British politics. It’s the capture of this middle ground, the swinging, non-tribal voters, that is so prized by both Labour and the Conservatives. It’s what Tony Blair did in the 1990s, thereby driving the Conservatives further to the right and relegating them to opposition for 13 long years. Now Cameron sees his opportunity. The coalition enables Cameron to advance the more liberal social policies he has advocated and push Labour further to the left.
Certainly, one crucial area that Cameron and Clegg most agree on is that decision-making power must be returned to local communities. The destruction of local autonomy, which Margaret Thatcher started in the 1980s and which PMs Major, Blair and Brown furthered, has repeatedly been proven not to work. Wedded to this centralisation of power has been the increasing government intrusion into people’s private lives. On the weekend, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg underlined that devolving power is crucial:
"David Cameron and I both understand that this government’s unifying realisation is that power must be dispersed more fairly in Britain today: from the Whitehall centre to communities; into the hands of patients, parents and pupils in our public services; protecting the rights and freedoms of people from arbitrary state interference; mobilising social mobility through greater fairness in the tax and school system. In short, distributing power and opportunity to people rather than hoarding authority within government."
Cameron wants this partial roll-back of the Thatcher revolution, but he needs the Lib Dems to do it, and he needs to silence the doubters in his own party.
In pushing this, the coalition will attempt to differentiate themselves from Labour, who remained mostly wedded to the centralisation of power in London to the end. Sensing the need to modernise Labour beyond being a party still reacting to the 1980s, leading contender for the Labour leadership David Milliband has previously supported a return to "localism". Milliband is seen as the "heir of Blair" having been a chief adviser to him in the 1990s when the New Labour project was at its height. But Milliband is adamant he wants to create "Next Labour", not revive New Labour.
Another possible leadership contender is Milliband’s younger brother Ed. He has more support from within the party and the unions and calls for Labour to return to its "radical" origins as a party of social change. He is also understood to reject his brother David’s belief that the party must reach out to the Right on the issues of crime and immigration. Other contenders are Ed Balls, Gordon Brown’s right hand man, and Jon Cruddas, one of the party’s leading left-wing intellectuals, who also calls for Labour to return to its roots as a party of social change and renewal.
Whoever wins the Labour leadership, he or she will be keenly aware of one thing: despite all the noises to the contrary from the new government, they could find themselves on the hustings sooner rather than later.
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