Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lib Dems - the Government's in-house Opposition?

The Daily Telegraph's sting operation has focussed attention on tensions within the coalition government, by revealing the less-than-startling fact that Liberal Democrat ministers don't agree with their Conservative colleagues on everything. For anyone who considers for a moment what a coalition is, that isn't really a surprise.

Vince Cable's comment on Rupert Murdoch was a serious matter because of the legal implications over the BSkyB case. But his "nuclear option" remark, which the Telegraph initially splashed on, was not actually surprising: "If they push me too far then I can walk out of the Government and bring the Government down and they know that" he said. That seems to me a perfectly accurate overall assessment of the position of the Liberal Democrats in government. Is that news?

In fact, Mr Cable's words could have described the position of many senior politicians in previous non-coalition governments. Gordon Brown's skirmishes with Tony Blair were underpinned by the implicit threat that Brown would resign and mount a challenge, whilst Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe explicitly threatened Margaret Thatcher with the prospect of their resignations over the Madrid Summit (and gained some concessions). When Howe eventually resigned, it did indeed trigger the downfall of her government.

All that is unusual about Cable's remarks, and those of his junior colleagues today, is the frankness they showed to complete strangers, who turned out to be journalists. The internal arguments they freely disclosed should remain internal, but it is no surprise that they are taking place. We know where Lib Dems stand on various issues, and where Conservatives stand. In areas not covered by the coalition agreement, they will of course have to argue their corner and reach a compromise.

The same is true in one-party governments, which are almost always coalitions of different strands of opinion. Every government includes ministers who represent a particular wing of the party, and who have a following amongst their backbenchers. They fight internal battles, and are often the most effective opposition a government faces. That reality has been formalised in the coalition and so should really not surprise us, even if the disclosures are embarrassing.

In other news, I notice that three Lib Dems - Alistair Carmichael, Simon Hughes and Don Foster - were made members of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council last week. This much-coveted privilege (entitling members to the title "The Right Honourable" for life) is usually reserved for Cabinet Ministers, a small number of senior Ministers of State, and the Leaders of the Opposition parties. But whilst Carmichael is a member of the Government as Deputy Chief Whip, Hughes and Foster are most certainly not. It is not unprecedented for backbenchers to be appointed to the Privy Council, but it is quite rare. We might conclude that these two Right Honourable gentlemen have been afforded status as Leaders of the Lib Dem opposition...

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