This country’s not used to coalitions. So when we got one we were sceptical. When it
worked, we remained sceptical. When it worked really well, taking decisions that a majority Labour government dared not take, we began to come around to the idea. Most people seemed to accept that
they could live with a coalition; that it had a certain utility.
Now, we don’t know what to think following the spat between George Osborne and Chris Huhne. Is this proof that the coalition cannot work or merely an example of the way coalitions work? There are
certainly worse examples of inter-coalition war in countries that often have coalition governments. German Economy Minister Rainer Brüderle was riled at the annual meeting of the World
Economic Forum in Davos when the then Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had breakfast with 20 economic leaders. "That’s not done. There are clear cabinet jurisdictions,"
Brüderle complained and spent days lambasting his colleague before the world’s media.
In fact there are numerous examples. Belgium, former Prime Minister Wilfred Maartens once told me that he had been negotiating the question of putting Pershing missiles in his country in the White
House, when he learnt his foreign minister had undercut his position in a separate negotiation with the US Secretary of State and gone public with the deal. I asked him what he had done.
"Nothing", he said. "That’s what government is like in our country."
What of the time when the French Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, declared his opposition to granting greater autonomy to Corsica, a policy promoted by coalition leader Lionel
Jospin. Similar disagreements are a feature of Israeli politics: how else could Shimon Peres and Yitzak Shamir serve in the same government? In Holland, the new government is made up of the liberal
People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and the Christian Democratic Appeal, but is supported by Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party. These partners do not share a common outlook on the
world, to say the least.
Of course, you don’t need a coalition to have public and acrimonious disagreements between ministers: think Blair and Brown or Sarkozy and de Villepin or Kissinger and Rogers. That said, without a
fully-fledged PR system it seems that coalitions in the UK will do the opposite of what Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems had in mind: provide incentives to turn brinkmanship into an art and posturing
into a full-time occupation.