The long goodbye?

The Coalition has begun Westminster’s equivalent of divorce proceedings ahead of next year’s General Election. Gone are any suspicions, which might have existed earlier in the Parliamentary term, that there could have been any type of electoral alliance between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. This won’t be a quickie divorce, but it has the potential to be an acrimonious one as both sides claim credit for Coalition successes, blame failure on the other party, and attempt to demonstrate their own identities. It’s a process that throws up some interesting questions about what we can expect from government in the next eleven months, and what a post-May 2015 government might look like.

The latest chapter in this saga is Nick Clegg’s insistence that the Liberal Democrats would increase public spending once the books have been balanced. It’s a clear and inevitable effort to distinguish the Lib Dems from perceptions of austerity-loving, government shrinking Tories and big-spending, consequence-ignoring Labour. But however inevitable in the context of the electoral cycle, this particular announcement has the potential to pose difficulties for the Coalition as a whole, and the Lib Dems in particular.

The Coalition is already battling the accusation of being a ‘zombie government’ after what many political affairs specialists and political commentators described as a pretty light Queen’s Speech. And with a comparatively modest legislative agenda ahead, the big question is how the Coalition parties coexist and maintain discipline in government while also attempting to set out their individual stalls for the election and claim credit for political victories that might win an ounce of favour with the public.

The other big question is whether this commitment of Mr Clegg and the Liberal Democrats will be something they are able, or indeed willing to stick to – or whether they might seek a compromise in order to have a say in the make-up of the next government. The opinion polls are clear that a single party majority is unlikely, and unless one party wishes to attempt the singularly difficult task of governing with a minority, there will be deals to be done. And these deals will, almost certainly, involve the Lib Dems.

Ukip’s ‘earthquake’ in the European and local elections aside, it remains to be seen whether the Party can retain momentum up to and beyond April/May next year. In any event, it’s highly unlikely that they would overturn sufficient seats to achieve a substantial presence in the House of Commons – let alone one capable of playing the role of kingmaker. And in any event, any type of coalition between Ukip and Labour is virtually a non-starter, while many Conservatives remain sceptical of the virtues of an alliance with a party often in the papers for the wrong reasons.

Almost by default, this means the Lib Dems could have a major say in who occupies 10 Downing Street next year. Mr Clegg’s spending pledge would appear, at least at this stage, to make any future coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives difficult at best to achieve. His pursuit of the middle road between the other two main parties might sound good to party activists and the members of the public right now. But if the Lib Dems are faced with the choice between a spending pledge and being part of government next May, will this be a promise they can keep?