David Cameron and Nick Clegg are kidding themselves if they think the undeniable success of the London Olympics will allow them to “relaunch” their coalition government.
The Tories and Liberal Democrats formed the coalition for two reasons. First, they agreed that the British economy needed to be rescued through a massive programme of public spending cuts. Second, each party believed its own interests could be advanced through the coalition.
Well, it’s not looking good on either front. To start with the second, Clegg hoped that the Lib Dems could run for re-election in 2015 on the platform of solid achievement in the area of constitutional reforms.
He reckoned without the Tories’ lack of scruples and utter ruthlessness. They shamelessly torpedoed Clegg’s top reform, introducing the alternative vote (AV) for elections to the House of Commons, in last year’s referendum.
And then Tory backbenchers successfully blocked his last hope—the move to a largely elected House of Lords.
Admittedly Cameron, whose sidekick George Osborne masterminded the successful No campaign on AV, was embarrassed by their revolt. But he doesn’t seem to have made much effort to try to change his MPs’ minds.
So Clegg has pressed the nearest thing he has to a nuclear button, short of actually bringing the coalition down. He announced that he would instruct Lib Dem MPs not to vote for next year’s changes to the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies.
This is a serious blow to the Tories. They are desperate to implement the boundary changes, which would significantly increase the number of seats they are likely to win in the House of Commons.
Understandably there’s been a lot of harrumphing on each side about the other’s scandalous behaviour. But the coalition isn't about to collapse.
If it did there would be an immediate general election. The Lib Dems would be, deservedly, massacred. They have absolutely nothing to show for their betrayal of election promises—notably to oppose higher university tuition fees.
But the Tories also have started to look nervously over their shoulders at Labour, which is now well ahead of them in the opinion polls.
There’s been some speculation that Boris Johnson, basking in the reflected glory of the Olympics, might mount a challenge to Cameron for the Tory leadership. I don’t see it myself.
Tony Blair created in the London Mayor a politician with the biggest single mass electorate in Britain. This has advanced the careers of politicians with quirky media images and a degree of distance from the big party machines—first Ken Livingstone and now Johnson.
Johnson’s right wing populism may play well with the Tory backbenchers. But even if he did succeed in replacing Cameron, he would still be confronted by the same parliamentary and electoral arithmetic that created the coalition and has held it together.
The Tory backbencher Nick Boles argues: “The irony of the situation is that we are more tightly bound together, for better or worse, than we ever were before. The only thing that either of us have now is the core objective of getting the deficit under control, getting the economy back on track.”
But deficit-cutting isn’t going very well either. Faced with an economy that has now shrunk for three successive quarters, the Bank of England has now cut its growth projections.
Economists are gloomily speculating that the productive capacity of the economy may have been permanently damaged by the crisis.
Osborne’s strategy of cutting public spending to revive the private sector has totally failed. The latest trade figures show the gap between imports and exports widening, even though the fall in the pound should have made British goods more competitive abroad. Employers’ organisations are predicting that unemployment will rise in coming months.
So we are confronted with an increasingly fractured and fractious government, rudderless in stormy economic seas. The coalition is there for the taking, if the forces of resistance can get their act together.