It will be 10 years ago tomorrow, in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street, that two men stood side-by-side. David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister, in his blue tie; Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Deputy PM, in his yellow tie. Together, with studied ease and joshing humour, they launched the first British coalition government since the war.
It was Clegg, the junior partner, who said it best: “Until today, we have been rivals: now we are colleagues… This is a new government and a new kind of government. A radical reforming government where it needs to be. And a source of reassurance and stability, too, at a time of great uncertainty in our country.”
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The Coalition government even had an official colour, a soft green— a mix of the two party colours, as if the Cameron and Clegg ties had copped-off and had a baby.
There were those who said it wouldn’t last, that a coalition of mismatched parties (a big one of the centre-right, a small one of the centre-left) would soon collapse. And yet it lasted a full five years — Tories and Lib Dems referring to one another as ‘honourable friends’ for the duration of the parliament.
But where’s the legacy? David Cameron had 10 years as Tory leader. Six years of them as Prime Minister. In George Osborne he had a politically-potent, but loyal, deputy — not to mention an heir apparent. Together they swallowed up the Lib Dems, wrecked New Labour and won the first Conservative majority since 1992.
Clegg may have been doomed from the start, but the future should have belonged to Cameron and the Cameroons. Yes, at some point, they’d have lost power — in a true democracy political ascendancies eventually and inevitably descend. But usually they shape what comes after them.
Thatcherism left its mark on Blairism, which in turn influenced Cameronism. A new broom may set out to sweep away the legacy of what came before it; yet there’s still a connection — a negative example which the incoming regime seeks to define itself against.
But with the Cameron-Clegg years there isn’t even that. Unless you look very hard, the Coalition years are unusually — almost freakishly — disconnected from what happened next. It’s almost as if they didn’t happen at all.
Though they were the big beasts of their era, Cameron and Clegg can be seen as an evolutionary dead-end — the last of a line wiped-out by a series of cataclysmic events.
Occasionally, in the history of a nation, there will be an upheaval of such magnitude as to completely redefine the politics of the present. The future is severed from the past — rendering what happened before irrelevant to what happens next. What’s so extraordinary looking back across the last decade is that three such upheavals stand between 2010 and 2020.
The first was the election of 2015 — which ended the Lib Dems as a serious force in British politics. What was literally a party of government is now a joke party of the loony centre. Vince Cable once remarked that Gordon Brown had gone “from Stalin to Mr Bean”, but little did he know that the Lib Dems would go from Vince Cable to Layla Moran.
The second upheaval was Brexit — which ended David Cameron as a serious force in British politics — and George Osborne too. If you look at their record, there is everything that the two amigos achieved over their political careers. And then there is them losing the 2016 referendum. The latter stands beside the former like the White Cliffs of Dover against a sandcastle.
Now, it is Brexit’s turn to be overshadowed — and by the tiniest of things, a virus. Looking back on that scene 10 years ago, what better setting could there have been than a rose garden? Because it all seems so impossibly, heartbreakingly, quaint.
And yet those years aren’t entirely without significance. As well as the fateful promise to hold an in/out referendum, there are other threads that still connect the past to the present: consequences of the Coalition that we still live with today. Here are five of them.
1. The Cameroon style of government
To be fair, this was a continuation of the Blair-Brown style of government — i.e. an over-centralised, headline-obsessed, PR-driven operation, that treats the Cabinet like middle management.
All governments need strong leaders, but good leaders allow the most talented individuals in their organisations to thrive. Bad leaders stunt the growth of those closest to them, and sideline those who refuse to be smothered.
For instance, no one doubts the dominant role that Margaret Thatcher played in her time as Prime Minister, but, contrary to the sexist stereotypes, she did not emasculate the big beasts in her Cabinet. She certainly fought with them (in Michael Heseltine’s case, to the death); but, to this day, Heseltine, Howe, Hurd, Major, Clarke, Lawson and Tebbit are seen as substantial figures in their own right.
It’s telling that the two figures who managed to emerge from the shadow of Cameron and Osborne — Theresa May (for a while) and Boris Johnson — were those who’d managed to maintain their distance from the leadership without being thrown out altogether.
The legacy, here, is that the Cameroon style of government has persisted, albeit under the new management of the May and Johnson regimes. At a time in our history when we need a government led by giants, we have a ministerial team of ever-diminishing stature.
2. The tuition fees fiasco
Tuition fees: the original sin of the rose garden. Though first introduced by Labour, they were tripled by the Coalition. That was despite a very public pledge, made by the Lib Dems during the 2010 election, to vote against any rise in fees. Cleggmania, if you remember that such a thing ever existed, was swept along by a tide of student support. But once in power the Lib Dems not only voted for the increase, but implemented it as part of a Tory-led government!
Politicians break promises. We all know that — and we expect it to happen. But this was on another level. The Lib Dems’ reputation was destroyed and has never recovered.
As for the funding of higher education — student numbers have swollen and as a result so have the pay packets of vice chancellors. The student loan system, however, is a shambles. An IFS report from last year found that approximately half of all loans are written off — the taxpayer picking up the tab. This accounts for 90% of all government spending on higher education — a subsidy for failure that rewards the courses and institutions that make the least contribution to their students’ future prospects.
It’s an absolute mess that loads young people up with debt, while still leaving taxpayers on the hook. And, of course, those responsible — the fat cats of the higher education establishment — get paid regardless. The whole thing is morally bankrupt — and the current crisis is pushing it ever closer to financial bankruptcy too.
3. Breaking the housing ladder
Having alienated the young with its tuition fees policy, you’d have thought that the Coalition might have won them back by making homeownership affordable again.
Not a bit of it. In 2010, poleaxed by recession, the big housing developers were on the floor. The Government could have dictated terms — putting an end the landbanking scam, for instance. Instead, ministers rescued the sector without reforming it .
The Coalition’s flagship policy was ‘Help to Buy‘ — basically a mortgage subsidy that only serves to pump more finance into a rationed housing market. The impact on prices was entirely predictable. So, 10 years later, Generation Rent is still struggling to get on to the housing ladder. With the oldest millennials now hitting middle age, they face a lifetime of exclusion from the property-owning democracy. Good luck getting them to vote Conservative!
It’s not that nothing has been achieved. There were some useful reforms to the planning system and, more recently, the excellent work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. But these have been initiatives of the Department of Communities and Local Government (latterly, the Department of Housing, Communities and local Government). The policies that really count were — and still are — dictated from the Treasury and Downing Street. And those power centres are still dedicated to the protection of the landlord class.
What a shameful legacy.
4. Austerity the stupid way
It has to be said that the Coalition government was not dealt the easiest of hands. Like the Obama administration in America, they came into power with the consequences of the Global Financial Crisis to sort out.
With its outsized financial sector, the British economy was in a vulnerable position. Add to that a hung parliament plus the Eurozone crisis gathering momentum just over the Channel, and it is clear that the new government absolutely had to establish its credibility.
As the Left always pretends to forget, a mountain of public debt doesn’t just allow a country to spend more than it earns, it makes it deeply dependent on the confidence of its creditors — i.e. the international money markets. As events would prove, the loss of that confidence would have dire consequences elsewhere in Europe.
As painful as austerity has been the UK, it could have been worse. Just ask the Irish or the Italians or the Greeks. And yet while he had no choice but to rein in spending, George Osborne made some unforced errors.
For instance, he ruthlessly exploited public support for curbs to social security. It was right to encourage people off welfare and into work, but lasting harm was done by underfunding vital reforms like the introduction of Universal Credit.
Another false economy was the decision to implement Labour’s planned cuts to capital spending (infrastructure, etc). Failing to mend the roof when the sun’s shining (the charge that the Coalition levelled at Labour) is certainly irresponsible, but failing to fix it when it is raining is even worse. In fact, downing tools at a time when the economy has lots of idle capacity is simply perverse.
The recovery was undoubtedly delayed as a result. And the work that could have been done was added the country’s backlog of necessary infrastructure improvements. That’s an especially big burden on those parts of the country that have suffered decades of under-investment.
Goodness knows what the Covid-crisis will do to it, but the current government’s “levelling-up” agenda is just what Britain needs. But we needed it 10 years ago too.
5. The three horrible aitches
As if to make up for their early mistakes, Cameron and Osborne went on to develop a penchant for really big infrastructure investments — promoting the three horrible aitches: HS2, Hinkley Point C and Heathrow expansion. The political advantage of these massive projects was that with their very long lead-in times, big announcements could be made years, even decades before the bills become due.
However, this also provides plenty of time for costs to be revised — which they have been, in the usual upwards fashion.
The horrible aitches are obvious white elephants that should have been shot by the Coalition. Instead, they gained such momentum, that the more sceptical May and Johnson administrations felt unable to stop them. Coronavirus may put to a halt to Heathrow (indeed to whole swathes of the aviation industry) — but it looks like we’ll be paying billions-and-billions for HS2 and HPC for decades to come.
This will be the longest lasting and costliest legacy of the Coalition years.
I’ll admit I’ve been accentuating the negative. There were some positives: the Govian reforms to education; the devolution of power to English cities; a pretty good climate change policy. But I’ve focused on the mistakes because they were avoidable.
It’s not like we can afford to make them again.