There’s a well-known fable involving a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion, keen for nebulous reasons to be on the other side of a river, asks a nearby frog to help out by carrying him over. The frog is dubious. “How do I know you won’t sting me?”, he asks. The scorpion, reasonably, replies that if he did, they would both die. So the frog, naively, agrees to the plan, and inevitably, halfway across, the scorpion stings him. “Why did you do that?” gasps the dying frog. “You know that we’ll both die now!” The scorpion is phlegmatic: “It’s my nature. I can’t change it.”
This charming tale came to mind on Monday, when BBC News managed to find a space in between its wall-to-wall Olympic coverage for some actual news. Said news was a dejected looking Nick Clegg seeming to finally realise the nature of the predatory beast he’d harnessed himself and his party to. He’d called a press conference to announce that the last of the Lib Dems’ central policy planks, the reform of the House of Lords, was to be abandoned in the face of overwhelming opposition not just from Labour, but from the Lib Dems’ own coalition partners/masters, the venomous Conservative Party.
It took Clegg rather longer than that mythic frog to feel the repeated stings his ‘allies’ barbed tail was inflicting on his party’s policies. The Tories granted him his cherished referendum on reforming the electoral system, then despite careful negotiations defeated him at the polls with a hell-for-leather opposition campaign infinitely better funded and organised than that in support of the motion. They allowed him his increase in the income tax lower threshold – while at the same time slashing the top rate of tax for their hyper-rich cronies (sorry, ‘job creators’ – ha!) and rejecting his proposed ‘mansion tax’, a variation on another cherished Lib Dem policy, Land Value Tax. And all this after beginning their marriage of convenience by forcing the Lib Dems to not only abandon their policy of opposing rises to, and trying to abolish, university tuition fees, but actually twisting their arms to tacitly support having the fees trebled.
Yes, the Lib Dems have wrung some small concessions from the Tories (see my previous blog on this), to the extent that Cameron has had to tell the press that he could “govern like a true Tory” if only it weren’t for those pesky Lib Dems, in an attempt to placate his more barking rightwing backbenchers. But to the voting public, those concessions are small fry compared with the formerly compassionate-seeming Lib Dems’ complicity in slashing the Welfare State and laying the groundwork for further privatisation of the much-loved NHS.
And in any case, the public image of the Lib Dems rests primarily on those central planks they’ve been so vocal on in the past – abolition of tuition fees, the reform of the voting system, and the reform of the House of Lords. With the first two well and truly scuppered by their underhand partners, the forced abandonment of Lords reform was the final sting for Clegg, who miserably took to the air to (finally!) condemn the damage his supposed ‘allies’ were doing not just to him, but to their own party and the government of the country as a whole. Finally discovering some balls, he chose to use them in precisely the wrong way, with a childish tit-for-tat gesture that promised to scupper a cherished Tory policy – the electoral boundary review, which, on the face of it, would gain the Tories more seats in a reduced Commons to the detriment of both Labour and the Lib Dems.
The problem is that, in the minds of the voting public, the Lib Dems are most strongly associated with constitutional reform, and with good reason. As my Lib Dem friend Richard explains in his blog, if you’ve lost faith in the political system because you think it’s broken, nothing about it will work properly until it’s fixed. Trouble is, looked at without partisan goggles, the proposed boundary review does seem a fairer way of dividing votes for the British electorate. Clegg himself said in November 2010 that it would mean "correcting fundamental injustices in how people elect their MPs". And it’s less than certain that the Tories would like or benefit from it as much as he seems to think.
So retaliating against the Conservatives by blocking a policy he should by rights be in favour of, and which they may not be as keen on as he thinks, looks, well, a bit silly really. Unfortunately, this is the same kind of political naivete, derived from years spent in opposition, that produced his other great no-win scenario, tuition fees. Like that debacle, he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.
If he blocks the boundary changes, he can be seen to be finally standing up to the Tories – but be seen as a hypocrite by many, not least in his own party. If he chooses to retain his integrity and support a constitutional change perfectly in line with his own party’s policies, he’s got nothing in the arsenal left to strike the Tories with, and looks like he’s bent over to let his party get shafted by them for the umpteenth time.
Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but I’d say he should have stood firmer ground when the Tory leadership first broke their word and began aggressively campaigning for a ‘no’ vote to the AV referendum. There were any number of cherished Tory policies he could have seriously damaged by withdrawing support back then – the NHS reforms, the welfare reforms, reduction in the top rate of tax – and he might have seriously regained some respect and support for his party in the eyes of the electorate. But they’ve all been passed now, with the tacit or actual support of his party giving them a mandate, and all that’s left to torpedo is a policy that he should, logically, be in favour of.
OK, so what about the other Parliamentary numskulls?
To be fair, no party has emerged from this debacle covered in glory. David Cameron, in particular, now looks incredibly ineffectual as a leader who can’t even deliver his own party’s support for an agreed-for policy. The backbench rebellion of 91 MPs is one of the largest rebellions against the party whips in the history of his party, and the fact that they felt they could get away with it does Cameron’s leadership standing no favours at all. One tweeter commented, accurately, that “Lib Dems thought they were in Coalition with the whole Tory party not just David Cameron”. The backbenchers are making the Tory party look like a reverse ouroboros, a snake whose tail is somehow eating its own head.
Not to mention undermining the tenuous alliance they have with the until-now supine Lib Dems, which they seem to have forgotten is the only thing currently preventing them from struggling through as a minority government. They can’t even go to the polls without a 55% vote of no confidence due to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the one constitutional reform that has been enacted. Not that they would be likely to win an outright majority this time, but it’s never worth underestimating the power of delusion in the rightwing Conservative ranks. In short, they’ve finally succeeded in alienating the party that is the only thing keeping them properly in power. But like that scorpion of old, that’s Tory nature.
But surely Labour are dealing with this with their usual sensitive maturity?
Labour too look pretty crap here, torpedoing a policy they’ve championed of old as a (supposed) party of the working class. Politics is about compromise, and while the Lords reform might not have been all they wanted, voting for no reform at all feels like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It could always have been built on later, in the increasingly likely result of the next government being Labour. Instead, next time the Tories can fling the accusation that they’ve already rejected it once. It’s the same as those ardent PR supporters who voted no to AV on the grounds that it wasn’t full PR – those opposed now have the ammunition that the British public have already rejected electoral reform.
The Lords reform legislation as drafted had its roots in a Labour-instituted study, too, and they voted for it at both first and second reading, dropping their ‘no’ bomb at the late stage of debate timetabling. They probably did have a point that the legislation was shoddy and needed reshaping, and that might well have required considerably more than 14 days’ worth of debate. But crucially, at that late stage, they offered no alternative suggestion – just an emphatic “no”. It looks most like a childish fit of pique, designed to drive a wedge between the coalition ‘partners’ in the full knowledge of Cameron’s ineffectiveness of whipping his backbenchers into line.
And yet, Labour might be being cannier than they seem, especially with Clegg’s (perhaps?) unwitting connivance. For all the ambivalence of the Tories and the Lib Dems, Labour were the one party surest to lose out on seats due to the boundary review. Now, despite Cameron’s plan to persevere with it, if the Lib Dems hold to Clegg’s word and oppose it, it’s finished. Advantage: Labour.
The fact that this couldn’t have worked out better for them in that sense has led some to speculate that this was an arcane plan of Miliband and co’s all along – oppose Lords reform and Clegg will have to retaliate, and boundary changes is the only significant thing he has left to strike at. And one Lib Dem I know has gone even further and suggested that perhaps the opposition to the boundary review is Clegg’s own olive branch held out to the previously intransigent Labour party, laying the groundwork for abandoning their treacherous Tory partners at last.
A match made in Hell?
I’m not sure I buy that, but there still seems to be some vain hope that Clegg, Cable and co will cross the floor and hook up with Labour. I don’t think that would do them any favours; they’d be seen as fickle and opportunistic, bending their ideology to whichever main party would offer them the most regardless of their principles. Far better to abandon coalition altogether while they can still (truthfully) assert that they have tried to make it work in the same mature fashion as European parties, only to be thwarted by the childish, materialistic behaviour of their supposed ‘partners’.
They could then stand some chance of regaining respect by supporting the Conservatives on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, leaving them free to oppose any measures they genuinely didn’t support. The only problem there is that most of the measures a lot of Lib Dem MPs would oppose have already been passed in a frenetic haste by a Conservative party desperate to enact their ideology in case they turn out to be a one term government.
And of course, leaving the coalition would leave the Lib Dems with no positions in the Cabinet from which to moderate the Conservatives’ brutal, ideologically motivated policies. But in the eyes of most of the electorate, they’ve singularly failed at ‘moderating’ anyway, content with a few piecemeal breadcrumb policies thrown from the table while the Conservatives hacked away at everything liberals and the welfare state have achieved since 1948.
Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I wonder how many Lib Dems now think their leaders should have walked away from coalition with either major party, retaining their integrity by saying, “we tried to make it work, but neither party would compromise maturely enough for us to find common ground”. Those who support the coalition may be saying that “enough common ground” was precisely what the Tories offered, but they’re just now finding out how much those promises were worth (rather later than many others, I think). It’s taken long enough, but the Lib Dems may finally be realising that Tories can no more change their nature than that scorpion, even if it means their own electoral destruction.