Coffee House

Ministers aren’t just preparing for Coalition divorce, they’re organising arguments with their partners too

17 May 2013

9:04 AM

17 May 2013

9:04 AM

Reports today that the Conservatives are wargaming end-of-Coalition scenarios in the event of the Lib Dems leaving early won’t come as a surprise, given the bickering over the past few weeks on snooping, childcare and Europe. But in the interim, ministers are also trying to work out how both parties can practise a sensible differentiation policy without appearing to squabble endlessly for another two years.

Nick Clegg spoke about the need for sausage machine government before Christmas, with a call for honesty about the difference between the two parties on policies as they were being developed. He has annoyed Theresa May something rotten by sticking to that principle on the Snooper’s Charter (and the Times reveals some angry letters that flew between the two on this). But that was a good example of gory government. A bad example is the row over childcare, where both sides are arguing as much about who said what as they are about the policy itself.

Some Conservatives were initially reluctant when Clegg started talking about honesty and openness in government. But they recognise the need for differentiation. Many wish Number 10 had seen the Queen’s Speech as a key opportunity to start that in earnest by publishing the draft EU referendum bill alongside the government’s legislative programme, to make a real point about what a majority Tory administration could be doing. But at least the Bill is now out, has an MP looking after it, and has the opportunity to provoke some debate with the Lib Dems and tensions in the Labour party.


The plan on the Conservative side is to be organised about the differentiation. Any ‘what we’d do without the Lib Dems’ moments will have big neon signs around them, rather than leaking out to journalists as behind-the-scenes rows. ‘We have got to do this in an organised way,’ says one Cabinet minister. The great risk is that voters simply see more arguments, rather than orchestrated pitches for their attention from the different parties. The leaders will need to sign off on each sausage machine moment, rather than being surprised by briefings to the newspapers.

One policy area that Conservatives want to see more differentiation on, and where Nick Clegg is more than happy to give as good as he gets, is human rights. I understand Chris Grayling is working on a plan for the Tory party to differentiate itself clearly and with concrete ideas on human rights. This will be unveiled in due course.

Differentiation doesn’t just rely on the careful planning of members of the Cabinet, though. The big lesson from this week’s mayhem on Europe is that a whole party needs to develop strong message discipline. The Tories are getting better at this, with Lynton Crosby pushing them harder, and a more proactive operation from the whips for events such as PMQs. But if Tory backbenchers are bickering, then it becomes a lot more difficult to organise a political row with the Lib Dems.

What is probably needed is a little bit more love. If the differences between the two parties get too personal, then the only thing that gets attention is the personal animosity, not the policy distinctions. It’s a delicate balance, and a real challenge for those at the top of the Coalition to get it right.

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Show comments
  • ScaryBiscuits

    What is probably needed is a little bit more love.
    This has been the Cameroon strategy with the LibDems since the beginning and it has failed. What would have been better and still could is a bit more professionalism. If both leaders recognised that this was a professional arrangement not a personal one, the would probably get more trust and therefore more space from their respective parties.

  • itdoesntaddup

    Surely it is in both Conservative and Lib Dem interest (and even Coalitionista interest) to take advantage of the rules of the Fixed Parliaments Act and give Labour a short turn at the helm before the next election. The reminder should scare the electorate into not granting Labour control over the next five years. Existing MPs don’t risk their seats as they would at an early election.

  • clare62

    ‘The Conservatives will need to develop strong message discipline’ Given the events of the last few days I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • Colonel Mustard

    It was apparent from the behaviour and words of the odious Chris Bryant on QT last night that Labour and the Lib Dems are already scheming.

    • Russell

      The most disgustingly biased pro-Eu broadcast yet from the BBC. It should have been renamed the Chris Bryant Pro EU,Pro Gay marriage show.
      Meanwhile Farage gets attacked in Scotchland by screaming lefties and pro EU mob of hate filled protestors.
      Beware of the National Socialist Labour party in cahoots with the BBC. Even the way the BBC reported the event showed their contempt towards UKIP and Farage.

      • bengeo

        By blueprint

        “‘Twas on the 15th of May 2013
        That fat Nigel of UKIP in fair Alba was seen

        He came north to preach of the evils of Brussels
        And flex metaphorically his little Englander muscles

        But as word got around a cruel mob they did gather
        To tell poor auld Nigel he was a man without father

        He fled for the safety of the old Canons’ Gait
        Where the guests long decades for a good pint could wait

        The good burghers of Edin stood outside in the street
        Him with rocks and half-bricks and old bike chains would greet

        But a big Black Maria did whisk him away
        And he’s not been seen back in oor land tae this day

        Oh great big fat trougher fae south o’ the Tweed!
        Ye’ll long rue the day that yir puce-coloured heid

        Sullied oor fair capital and darkened oor door
        So flee doon o’er the border, and fare back here no more!

        – William Nigel McGonagall”

        • Russell

          History should teach the jocks that the English after being told to go away and think again, do, and return with a vengeance.

          • telemachus

            We need the union
            Keep Farage out of Scotland

            • Russell

              Half of Scotchland is employed in the public sector with a lot of the rest sucking on the teat of welfare also at the taxpayers expense.
              If only we could ensure all of a 50% reduction in the public sector was carried out up there in the back of beyond.

            • David B

              More importantly keep Gordon Brown out

            • Colonel Mustard

              We need sanity. Keep telemachus out of the Coffee House.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Nice poem. You should paint it on the side of a house wall with a suitable flag and other sectarian paraphernalia to augment your mythology.

    • dalai guevara

      Well, who would want to ‘scheme’ with a split party in self destruct mode? That would only ever lead to subsequent u-turns. Oh, hang on…

      • Colonel Mustard

        Well they might not want to but they are supposed to be in coalition and serving the country’s best interests rather than their own party political purposes by scheming with the opposition.

        The fact that you can’t tell the difference tells us all we need to know about the leftist approach to politics. Self-serving, cynical, conniving, untrustworthy, duplicitous and dissembling. Much like your comments in fact.

        • dalai guevara

          hmm…the coalition ended with the boundary debacle waaaaay back then. I stated that opinion back then, and my comment still stands. You and I may believe that once you agree to a five year team membership, you ought to stick to it, but as we all can quite clearly see, this is not is happening right now..

          We have seen countless u-turns since, and n o t h i n g of substance.

          Call that cynical, self-serving (?), whatever. It does not change what is clearly all our reality right now…not just mine. This reality of course must change soon.

    • David B

      I will be surprised if they are not in talks now to form a grand coalition. Ed and Nick meet in the Rose Garden at Number 10 to save the UK from losing its EU membership.

  • Andy

    Good. There should be some Tory policies brought forward. ‘Differentiation’ doesn’t just apply to the LibDems.

    • Russell

      The Tory policy of staying in the EU no matter what the promised referendum result has ensured the demise of the Tory party.

      In an interview with the Spanish El Pais, with the headline quote from Cameron;

      “The best solution for the UK is to stay in a reformed EU”, he was
      asked the following (via Google translate):In case of a Yes victory in
      the referendum that will organize on leaving the EU, would you be
      willing to withdraw from the Union?

      ***And Cameron’s response: I would not. (No me gustaría)***

      Snakeoil salesman is an understatement to describe Cameron, bring on a split and general election asap, and hopefully UKIP can save the country from not only labour but the EU with a mass defection of tory voters ensuring a Canada moment…

      • Curnonsky

        “No me gustaria” means “I would rather not”. Still, hardly a credible bargaining stance.