Tory success overshadowed by concerns over future of the Coalition
It was a very good night for David Cameron as Leader of his party but a more worrying one for him as Prime Minister of the Coalition Government. Suffering one of the worst election nights since the 1980s, the Liberal Democrats bore all the pain of the Government’s austerity programme. While they seem to have performed reasonably well in English rural areas, they suffered heavy losses in English Northern cities such as Liverpool, Sheffield and Hull where they were the main opposition to Labour.
Labour had a good night in England and will be pleased that it improved its position significantly in Wales. However Scotland was Labour’s worst ever result there and the SNP’s best. Alex Salmond secured an overall majority which is a major victory for him and his party. The main interest in these election results is the impact they will have on the Coalition Government.
Conservative backbenchers are likely to be more bullish to the point where some may even demand a snap election – although most recognise that they need to wait at least until the new boundaries are agreed.
Relations between the two parties have been seriously damaged by the referendum on electoral reform. Former Liberal Democrat Leader Paddy Ashdown attacked the Prime Minister this morning in an interview with the Guardian. The optimism of the Downing Street Garden press conference a year ago which launched the historic partnership between David Cameron and Nick Clegg will give way to a much more hard-headed coalition of necessity. Both sides recognise that they need to stick to the five-year programme but the suggestions a year ago of a potential realignment of British politics on the German model, involving a more centrist Conservative party cooperating with a more free-market Liberal Democrat party, are history.
It is unlikely that there will be major ‘concessions’ to the Liberal Democrats as part of a coalition relaunch in the next couple of weeks. However senior members of both parties recognise the need to renew the marriage vows. And the political reality is that the Liberal Democrats will complain more and will probably use the House of Lords to wring more concessions from Tory ministers on health, elected police chiefs, Lords reform and local government. The NHS bill which recommences its parliamentary progress in the summer is going to be a major challenge to Coalition nerves, with Labour doing its best to tempt potential rebels over to its side.
On most issues, concessions here or there on health or police won’t matter that much. But the challenge for Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat colleagues in Government is to persuade party colleagues to hold their nerve on the economy. Continued Liberal Democrat support for the deficit reduction programme is essential to their political credibility.
A reshuffle remains a possibility. At Cabinet level however, Cameron’s options are limited. Lib Dem ministers are a matter for Nick Clegg, not David Cameron, therefore Chris Huhne and Vince Cable are both unsackable despite their public attacks on the Government. But it may become a very difficult issue if they continue with their public aggression against the Conservatives. There are limits to Prime Ministerial patience with ministers who constantly undermine collective responsibility.
And although senior Tories are increasingly sceptical about Andrew Lansley’s ability to deliver health reform, removing him would be very costly politically and would be seen by many backbench Conservatives as a concession too far to their coalition partners. A more modest reshuffle of the junior positions is a stronger possibility which would see some of the poorly performing ministers in both parties replaced by some of the bright new intake MPs.
For Ed Miliband, the results are just about good enough. The Scottish performance was about Scotland, not the UK leadership. And Labour secured enough gains nationwide to be credible. However, they have a long way to go before they return to the pre-1997 heights where Labour won seats and councils across the country including the South of England.
Scotland will be more difficult. The SNP have won a renewed mandate after a successful first term as a minority government. The second term will be trickier with SNP ministers required to make substantial cuts in public expenditure. And, if Salmond secures his majority, he will be under considerable pressure to deliver a successful referendum on independence for Scotland. The evidence of the election seems to be that the voters like the general air of moderate competence of SNP ministers but remain deeply sceptical about independence.
In normal circumstances, local elections rarely change things. The difference today is that we have a Coalition Government where intra-party sensitivities have been significantly heightened by a bad-tempered and partisan referendum campaign. For almost a year following the creation of the Coalition Government, David Cameron managed to portray himself as almost being above party politics. The referendum campaign changed all that. The Coalition now looks slightly less stable and more fragile than it did a few weeks ago. Since both Cameron and Clegg know that it is in the interests of both their parties to stick it out for the five years, they will have to work very hard to re-stabilise the Government. Since the Parliamentary agenda is dominated by so much controversial legislation, they will have their work cut out.