Details have been published today of the coalition agreement reached between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In short this looks (on paper at least) to be an arrangement which should lead to a stable five-year government with an agenda that represents a good mixture of the two policy positions.
I can’t deny that I’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching over the last twenty-four hours or so. Regular visitors to this site will know that I have no great love for the Tories, and the prospect of putting together a deal with them was something I was instinctively, viscerally opposed to. My natural inclination would have always been to seek an arrangement with parliamentary parties ‘of the left’, but the stark electoral arithmetic (not to mention Labour’s understandable reluctance to stay in government) meant that this was always merely an outside possibility.
With a “Progressive Alliance” effectively ruled out there were then only two options left to the Lib Dems. Firstly, they had the choice of doing a deal with no one, thereby allowing a minority Tory administration to be formed. This would hardly have been an advertisement for the Lib Dem commitment to stable government. After years of campaigning for a ‘balanced’ parliament, how ridiculous would Nick Clegg have looked if his party had backed out when the golden opportunity finally arose? The other drawback would have been the likelihood of David Cameron seeking a second General Election within a matter of months. Only the Tories would have been well-resourced enough to be able to afford this, and a majority Conservative government by the end of the year would have had no reason to take on board many of the Lib Dem policy objectives that now form part of the programme of government.
The only realistic option left was to form a coalition government with the only party that had enough seats to make the arrangement work: the Conservatives. There are many bitter pills to be swallowed (Cameron in Number Ten, Tory policies on Europe, Trident and immigration, and George Osborne anywhere near government) but there are also many areas where Liberal Democrats can be happy with what has occurred. A principled, though theoretical, place in opposition would not have delivered the fairer tax agenda, banking reform, a real advance on environmental issues, fixed-term parliaments and at least the start of political reform. Nor would we have had the chance to have Liberal Democrats in government, making decisions.
In an ideal world I would prefer there to be no Tories in government, but the electorate delivered their verdict and the politicians now have a duty to behave responsibly and get on with it. I fully respect Labour’s decision to take to the Opposition benches – they will come back stronger for rest and renewal – and I believe that there is much they can be proud of from their thirteen-year period in office. I am also encouraged by the Conservatives’ willingness to listen and compromise (even if it’ll be a long time before I trust them). The next five years will not be easy for either of the coalition partners, but I take the view that it is better to have Liberal Democrats in the government than in the opposition. Perhaps this is the start of a different way of doing things.