British politics is returning to normal. The two-party system is back. That, it seems to me, is the chief conclusion to be drawn from this year’s conference season*. The opposition have been supplanted by Labour and we’re back to the familiar sight of watching the Conservatives and Labour knock lumps out of one another.
It is not just that the Lib Dem conference seems to have taken place months ago (though it’s partly that) but that the guest list for the next general election has been agreed and Nick Clegg’s party isn’t on it. The Liberal Democrats? Who they?
For a long time now, the government has been weakened by the failure to resolve the tensions at the heart of the coalition. For a while this had one advantage: for as long as people were talking about the government’s internal differences they weren’t talking about what Labour offered as an alternative. Since the media only rarely has room for more than one conversation, that shut Labour out.
In a sense, then, Ed Miliband’s greatest (unkind observes might say, sole) achievement as leader of the official opposition has been to make Labour seem somewhat relevant again. That matters because without relevance a party is nothing and might as well be whistling Dixie in the wind.
As Labour’s relevance has increased so that of the Lib Dems’ has been reduced. This is, at least in part, the consequence of their own failure to embrace government. From the beginning the Lib Dems decided to be part-time members of the government and part-time members of the opposition. Increasingly it became clear they preferred the latter position.
And so the government was beset by internal feuding. Every policy announcement – no matter how trivial – had to be fought over. If the Tories had – or were perceived to have enjoyed – an advantage in one area then the Lib Dems would need to have – or be perceived to enjoy – an advantage in another. Everything had to be offset. No wonder the government soon developed two crippling weaknesses: a lack of policy rigour and a ruinously poor communications strategy.
As if this were not enough, the government was hampered by gross insubordination and a lack of discipline. Both parties were guilty of this and at no point did the government cashier (far less execute) the miscreants. Coalitions stand or fall together. When they stand firm they can be stronger than the sum of their constituent parts; when they are weak and feeble they amount to less than that. This government, perpetually at war with itself, has been of the latter type.
That reflects a failure of leadership as well as the failure to understand the mechanics of coalition. (In retrospect, Fraser’s idea that the Lib Dems should have been given whole departments rather than being scattered throughout Whitehall actually makes a grand deal of sense. Of course it might not have worked either but there you have it.)
Vince won’t stand for this or Hughes won’t wear that it is a rotten premise for government. Nor has it done the Lib Dems any good. Running from or otherwise seeming ashamed of your own record in office is, as a man once said, weak, weak, weak. It invites contempt and receives it in hefty measure.
Among the many notable aspects of David Cameron’s speech this morning was how he barely mentioned his coalition partners. If you think this suggests the Tories are prepared to more or less ditch or at least ignore the Lib Dems then I think you’d be right. It’s not that Tories will suddenly find Clegg’s platoon a happy bunch of subordinates, rather that the party appears to have realised that their real enemies are actually on the opposition benches.
Miliband more or less succeeded in his aim of presenting himself as a somewhat plausible Prime Minister in waiting. This being so, intramural squabbling between the coalition partners begins to seem like a distracting piece of self-indulgence. There are bigger foes to combat.
As for poor Clegg, well, he seems to have begun to appreciate that his party will be hanged either way. That being so it is best to make the best of life in office while they still can. Self-preservation demands nothing less. But that means accepting, I think, that the Lib Dem “differentiation” policy has been a costly failure. You cannot be a part-time member of this government any more than you can be half-pregnant.
I doubt that can save the Lib Dems from the calamity thundering towards them but it’s a better hope than anything they’ve had to this point. But it comes at a cost too, namely that Clegg is no longer the leader of the unofficial opposition.
And so the coalition is now, I think, likely to be less yellow (less green too) and a truer, deeper shade of blue. Politics as usual is in the process of being restored. That means Blue vs Red with the boys in yellow barely getting much of a look in.
*Not over yet since the SNP meet next weekend but, well, you know what I mean.
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