I have to say that this has all been great fun. Well, for me, anyway, and political junkies everywhere. For the parties involved, I don’t imagine that it has been anyone’s idea of fun at all, but the principals (Cameron, Clegg and Brown) all distinguished themselves in some ways, and I think we’ve gotten the government we deserve at the moment. How well the coalition approach will work over its intended five years is anyone’s guess, of course. But at the moment the odds don’t look horrible, mainly because both Cameron and Clegg demonstrated something that has been sorely lacking in British politics for some time—leadership. Cameron in particular, it must be said—he has carried himself throughout as a statesman, even though he will be the youngest Prime minster in over two centuries. Both Cameron and Clegg are 43.
The new government is actually going to be a real coalition—the Libs will have a number of cabinet posts (six, in fact, including Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister, and Chris Huhne as Energy can Climate Secretary, a fantastic choice). While there is probably going to be some disappointment that Vince Cable will not be Chancellor, that post falling to the increasingly young-looking George Osborne, Cable at least is getting something, as Secretary of the Treasury. Which means he’ll be the point person for the business and banking community. Which should make a number of people at least feel a bit better about what may be coming along fiscally, since the aim is still to reduce £6b from the current budget. This in part is what is presumably causing a nice rally in the Pound today. I imagine this was a big discussion point during the negotiations—the Tory proposal to implement cuts immediately, versus the Lib Dem proposal to wait a year. And I expect there will be some compromise here in the actual implementation even though it looks as if the Tories have won the point. There will be a lot of this, in fact—apparent victories for the headlines which will then turn out to be a bit more complicated than expected. The Tories, it must be said, look as if they have given up more than the Lib Dems in these negotiations—but they had more to gain.
Everyone looked pretty happy—except Labour, of course, but it’s likely that the Labour senior figures who have been all over the tube recently would continue to be snarling even if they had pulled off their improbable coalition talks. It has to be said that Clegg is looking pretty astute here, for all the grief he was taking for entering those discussion yesterday. He apparently was pushed into the negotiations by the senior old farts in the party, like Paddy Ashdown and Lord Steele (who co-fpounded the Social Democrats back in the day when they broke off from Labour). And he probably knew they would be disastrous beforehand, but probably figured, hey, let’s let Labour continue its meltdown anyway, which is what happened. Reports are that the Lib Dem negotiating team—the same group who have been talking with the Tories—were appalled by the rudeness and condescension of the Labour negotiators. It should also be said that it rapidly became clear that there were a substantial number of Labour MPs who were opposed to any deal, including senior figures like John Reid. More to the point, it became clear that practically no one in the party—virtually none of the elected MPs included—had been consulted by the party leadership about entering these negotiations in the first place, and that it had all been put together by three unelected figures—Mandelson, Campbell and Lord Adonis (what a name!).. At which point it became clear that this was simply a ploy by Brown, Mandelson and Campbell to try to stay in power. But the exercise had to be gone through, and it left Clegg in a stronger position to force through the coalition.
As far as I can tell, both the Tories and the Lib Dems seem to mean it when they say they look forward to working together. This leaves out the lefty fringe of the Lib Dems, and the righty fringe of the Tories, but I expect these two groups will continue to be marginalized. I think Cameron and Clegg are actually very serious about reforming the political system here—witness how quickly the Tories agreed to consider changes in the voting system, something most Tories (and most Labourites, it must be said) have staunchly opposed in the past. Some significant differences in the parties remain, of course—there is still a lot of Tory hostility to getting closer to Europe, for example, stuff like that. But both parties are taking the view that the economy, and the deficit, take priority over everything else, which markets like, and which most voters will probably like too. And it gives both Cameron and Clegg, who clearly like and respect each other, the opportunity to curb some of the excesses at the outer fringes of each party. In fact, I’ve seen a number of commentators opine that for Cameron, this is a godsend—if he had actually won the election outright, he would essentially be held hostage to the party platform, which still reflects the influence of Tory right. Now he can basically govern the way he wants to. Cameron is actually to the left of most of his party in many respects—green stuff, for example. But they need him, and most Tories know they need to be brought up to speed in the 21st century.
The media didn’t do a bad job either, suddenly being forced into 24-hour coverage with a rapidly evolving landscape over a number of days. BBC in particular did pretty well, considering how little sleep most of them have been getting. And aside from the odious Kay Burley, Sky did a pretty good job as well. It’s hard when not much is happening and you still need to fill airtime with some sort of babble, but they did manage to keep it at least watchable during those long periods of waiting, of which there were plenty. What did get tiresome was the constant trotting out of the same people from the various parties to keep repeating the same mantras over and over again. Marina Hyde expressed it well:
To say that by the end of this saga the media had begun to eat itself wouldn’t begin to cover the cannibalistic orgy that has been raging in Westminster. News channel helicopters drowned out their own ground-level broadcasts, ably assisted by megaphone-wielding members of the public who chanted things like “Sack Kay Burley!” Ever more outlandishly repellent pundits were exhumed. Kenneth Baker … oof, mine eyes! For political junkies it had the flavour of Pokemon – gotta catch’em all.
For less insane members of the public, this week has presumably acted as a sort of politics aversion therapy, ensuring that every time someone even says the words “strong and stable government”, intense feelings of nausea and images of Alastair Campbell will flood their brain.
The geographically tiny village of Westminster has resembled nothing so much as a meth-assisted version of Camberwick Green, with the Sauron-like capabilities of news channels allowing viewers to follow dramatis personae round this weirdo toytown. There were the Lib Dems leaving their headquarters; there they were walking to the Cabinet Office; there they were a few minutes later arriving. And oh look — there’s Windy Miller talking to Kay Burley on College Green.
But it was all great theatre, and if you got sick of seeing the same people being interviewed on the BBC, you could always shoot over to Sky or ITV to watch a different batch of people you had already seen interviewed get interviewed again. But this gave lots of time for pondering the more important things in life, or for getting another pint.
I won’t dwell too much on the fact that when Cameron went to meet the Queen and receive her authorization to form a new government, a rainbow broke out over the Palace. But it was pretty damn weird.