British politics returns to normal: Blue vs Red with Yellow on the touchline - Spectator Blogs

10 October 2012

3:29 PM

10 October 2012

3:29 PM

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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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Blog is very good.

  • Dogsnob

    It is a very uninspiring political horizon, yes.

    Red will take my money and give it to whoever gets off a plane at Heathrow.
    Blue will take my money off me and give it to people much better off than I will ever be, and to anyone who gets off a plane at Heathrow.

    In its defence, Yellow is actually a very lovely colour.

  • Kevin

    And yet we still have no choice when it comes to: monetary policy (higher savings rates), energy (esp. “global warming”) policy, foreign policy (should we be supporting the “Arab Spring” and what are we doing about persecuted Christians?), defence policy (stopping costly foreign wars and securing our own territory), tax policy (the abolition of “green taxes”, the BBC licence tax and VAT); the abolition of the NHS; withdrawal from the EU (to restore sovereignty over our laws, our fisheries, our borders) and from the Court of Human Rights (because they make stuff up); the implementation of immigration controls, the rationalisation of international aid; the restoration of the right to silence and the double jeopardy rule, of social conservatism; the repeal of the Abortion Act and the starvation provisions of the Mental Capacity Act; the abolition of “hate crimes”, respect for jury trial and the traditional right to bear arms, the restoration of capital punishment for murder.

    Just the choice to vote for your favourite colour.

  • FF42

    “The two-party system is back. That, it seems to me, is the chief conclusion to be drawn from this year’s conference season.”

    Maybe so,but it’s upto voters, not conference organisers. Nevertheless the collapse in Lib Dem votes should seriously worry David Cameron if those votes switch to Labour. Especially if another chunk of Conservative votes siphons off to UKIP. Mr Cameron should go out and beg, “Please. Please. Vote Lib Dem!”

  • Ashley

    What complete claptrap! The lib dems Will survive!

  • Adam Jacobs

    Your conclusion that the LibDems are being relegated to insignificant bit players seems entirely sound. But does this mean a return to 2 party politics? That doesn’t seem at all self evident. Another possibility is that there are a great many people who would hate to vote either Labour or Tory, and voted LibDem last time in the hope that they might be different. Now we’ve seen that they behave in exactly the same sleazy way as Labour or Tories, perhaps it will provide an impetus for a different, and more meaningful challenge to the two party system (and let’s face it, despite the rhetoric, there is very little to choose between the two main parties).

    At least, I hope so.

  • domhnall dods

    and in Scotland it’s more like blue on blue with Johann Lamont doing her best to sound more Tory than the Tories.

  • anthony

    Sorry, but I think that this is written more out of hope than a look at reality. Politics may have gone back to normal during conference season, but come Monday the two parties getting attention will be the two in government.