Have you noticed, recently, that the Coalition has changed the way it behaves in public? Two years ago, had Nick Clegg dropped his support for major Home Office legislation, spoken out about his own opinion on drugs policy and taken such a different position on a proposed dramatic change to the way newspapers are regulated within the space of a month, journalists would have gone into meltdown. Remember that in the early days of the Coalition, Simon Hughes saying he wasn’t sure about something the Prime Minister had announced was enough to hold the front page. Now we’re seeing differentiation on policies every day.
Today Nick Clegg said he wasn’t convinced that the war on drugs was working, and because of that, ‘yes of course we should do the good work that we are doing as a coalition government, but we should also be open-minded enough to look at whatever alternative approaches help us help those children more effectively in the future’.
The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman made clear this morning that the Prime Minister’s view that current drugs policy is working just fine is the policy of the government, and Clegg is just expressing a personal view. But she added: ‘Well, you know that in coalition governments there will be… differences of opinion.’ Cameron has also in the past few minutes said that Clegg is entitled to have his own view on drugs policy.
Vince Cable was freelancing over the weekend, telling every media outlet that he disagreed with George Osborne’s characterisation of benefit claimants. But Vince has always done this sort of thing, and actually it was striking that in his interview on Pienaar’s Politics, he managed, with the deft moves of the top-notch ballroom dancer that he is, to dodge saying whether he supported the plan to cap benefit rises to 1 per cent. A year ago Nick Clegg was making headlines with how very disappointed he was by David Cameron’s Brussels ‘veto’ moment. This year he has taken different positions to Cameron on three key issues in the past three weeks.
The problem comes when parties start fighting after the legislative process has begun. It would be wrong, for instance, for Clegg to say now that he disagrees with the Welfare Uprating Bill, but perfectly reasonable for him to express an opinion about other policies that his colleagues are mulling over. That is what makes the dispute over the boundary reforms so toxic: this is an agreed policy that the Lib Dems are speaking out against in public, not a proposal by a Tory minister that Clegg and co are reacting to. It is in these instances that backbenchers such as Peter Bone are right to grizzle about collective responsibility.
The two parties needed to present a united front for the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, but keeping up a ‘proalition’-style public pretence that ministers from across the coalition agree on everything would be unpalatable for voters. Nick Clegg expressing his own opinion on policy formation is a far more mature way of approaching the reality of two parties in government than leaving him sitting, with his glum head hanging a little sadly, on the green bench as a minister makes a policy announcement that everyone knows he disagrees with yet doesn’t get a chance to say what he thinks before the decision is made. Being open about the way government works is what a truly ‘proalition’ coalition should do.