What keeps Cam and Clegg clinging on
The Tories and Lib Dems are Ronsealed together by their fear and loathing of an estranged public.
‘The [UK’s Lib-Con] coalition government issued a mid-term report today and I am going to be honest and say that I am struggling to find anything sensible to write about it. I mean, what was the point?’ For many of us not immersed in the daily plotlines at the Palace of Westminster, this is probably a perfectly understandable response to a typically airbrushed, jargonised government report. But these words didn’t belong to just anybody. They belonged to Tom Bradby, ITN’s political editor. That is, they belonged to a member of the media and political class itself, someone for whom the intrigues and gossip in the Westminster village are normally unfathomably fascinating.
Bradby wasn’t alone. Hacks struggled to hack. Columnists struggled to pontificate. There was no getting away from it: the mid-term report, The Coalition: Together in the National Interest, launched as a glossy statement of Tory and Lib-Dem intent, landed with an all-too-audible groan of indifference.
This is hardly surprising. Together in the National Interest was trailed as the coalition government’s sparkly, unified vision for the second half of their fixed, five-year term of office. It was meant to inspire, to demonstrate why the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are very much in this together. So you’d expect some substance at least; something for people to get their teeth into. But there was none of that. Instead, buttressing the miserable, austere centrepiece commitment to deficit reduction there was some vague, all-too-familiar talk of building more houses and investing in transport, which would be good if the coalition hadn’t been promising something similar to no avail for the past two-and-a-bit years. And the fireworks moment, the policy proposal on which to hang a whole administration? ‘[The introduction of] a new single-tier state pension of about £140-a-week [the average is currently about £110], sweeping away a multi-layered system of state provision and a reliance on means-tested benefits.’ This was the flagship policy? No wonder the Guardian‘s Michael White described the report as ‘mostly bland’.
But in many ways, the content was not the point. The innocuous policy plans and promises merely provided the PR space for the main event: Conservative prime minister David Cameron standing arm-in-arm with his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg. This was the real substance. It was a chance for Cameron and Clegg to pose before the assembled reporters and attempt to demonstrate yet again the togetherness and strength of the coalition. Hence, the main talking point was not the mid-term review itself, but Cameron’s epithet for the coalition. ‘To me it’s not a marriage, it’s a Ronseal deal’, he said at the launch event. ‘It does what it says on the tin. We said we would come together, we said we would form a government, we said we would tackle these problems, we said we would get on with it in a mature and sensible way, and that is exactly what we have done.’ In this Ronseal analogy, Cameron almost captured the rule of the Lib-Con coalition in miniature; a government whose whole point extends little beyond being in government. It does exactly what it says on its plain packaging.
So when ITN’s political editor says that there is little sensible to say about such an ostensibly pointless document, he himself misses the point. For in the cringing bonhomie of that backslapped, smile-plastered union of Cameron and Clegg, one is able to glimpse something important: namely, the craven, cabalistic nature of today’s no-party politics. Hanging together is far more important to these two shining examples of the PR-reared, ideology-lite political class of today than falling apart on old-fashioned, outmoded party-political lines.
Yes, over the past two-and-a-half years of the coalition’s tenure, there have been several hyped-up disputes between the Lib Dems and the Tories. They fell out over Clegg’s push for a posh-bashing ‘mansion tax’; they rough-housed over Lords reform; and they’re always going to be bitch-slapping each other over Britain’s relationship with Europe.
But both Cameron and Clegg, Tory and Lib Dem, would much rather cling together than come apart. Because if they did, they would have to face the electorate once more, and that is the last thing either party wants to do. For good reason: both are not only unpopular, they are also, and this applies to the Tories in particular, mere shells of the socially rooted institutions they once were. Stocked now with ambitious careerists looking for the best vehicle to further their professional ambitions, the parties represent, beyond all else, their MPs’ own electoral interests, not any social constituencies’ interests.
And it is this need to hunker down, to protect themselves from a sometimes antagonistic, often indifferent demos, which keeps the parties together, locked into the coalition agreement to stay in government for a fixed five-year term. There is no countervailing force here. What could drive the two parties apart – a genuine clash of principles, a genuine sense that they represent opposed social constituencies – is absent. Instead, the only real force is that fear of the people, that estrangement from the citizenry, which keeps driving the Lib Dems back into Tory arms. The social forces that might have once driven the two apart are now no match for the political elite’s own desperate need to look after its own.
In fact, the mid-term review itself even seems to make a virtue of both parties’ dislocation, their unpopularity. This is why the review asserts proudly of the coalition’s austerity measures: ‘We have not balked at the tough decisions needed to secure Britain’s future.’ In this way, implementing unpopular, largely failing policies of fiscal restraint is portrayed as a mark of strong leadership. More striking still is the repeated recourse to the idea of the nation’s long-term interests – for example, ‘we will continue to put political partisanship to one side to govern in the long-term interests of the country’. In other words, the parties aren’t governing in the interests of those, many years ago, they used to represent – their ‘tribal’, ‘partisan’ supporters. No, they are governing in the name of something far more abstract: ‘the long-term interests of the country’.
In both rhetorical manoeuvres, the coalition parties have effectively turned their elitist isolation into a justification for continuing to govern. They know what is in our best long-term interests, even if we don’t. That is, they are actively governing in spite of the public, implicitly conceived here as partisan and short-termist. The result is government for governing’s sake, with the longevity and durability of an administration’s rule transfigured as its substance. And the only hope that sustains the parties is the belief that by the time the election comes around, things, as the old New Labour anthem went, might just have got a bit better.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.