The Endgame: How might the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government finish?

As the partisan debates around legislation on gay marriage wend their convoluted way through the Commons this week, exposing once again huge fissures between Conservative MPs and activists on the one hand and the PM and leading government modernizers on the other, so speculation about the end of the coalition government and the date of the next general election has revived. Chris Gilson reads the runes on when exactly the coalition government may end. 

This Sunday, against the background of the Conservative party’s continuing implosion over membership of the EU, the Daily Telegraph reported on a recent Total Politics interview with David Cameron. Here the Prime Minister raised the possibility that the coalition with the Liberal Democrats might not last until the next election, currently scheduled for May, 2015. Cameron said:

“What matters to me, though, is can we get things done? Can we improve the state of the country? Can we fulfil our manifesto?… The best way to do that is to continue with the Coalition, but if that wasn’t the case then we’d have to face the new circumstances in whatever way we should.”


 David Cameron and his Deputy, Nick Clegg (Credit, the Financial Times, CC by 2.0)

Yet why might the Coalition not be able to continue? A front page splashed report in The Times last week pointed to concerns among senior Conservatives that Nick Clegg may not be able to hold his party within the coalition through to 2015. If the coalition did become unworkable – and recent rifts over policy areas such as Europe, gay marriage, and child care reform give some idea that it might – then we may be headed for a pre-election split.

Geoffrey Howe’s comments that the Conservative ‘nervous breakdown’ over Europe was continuing, was matched by Peter Mandelson’s adept comment that Cameron was now in hock to the ‘provisional wing’ of his party, and edging towards the UK Isolation Party (as he dubbed UKIP). With UKIP already surging in local elections this year, the combined Euro elections and local elections due to be held on 31 May 2014 already look as if they could be a disaster for the Conservatives, with UKIP perhaps outpolling them convincingly. One way to head off such a possibility, and all the renewed intra-party Tory tensions it could generate, would be to call a general election either for same date, or perhaps earlier in May. Cameron might hope in this way to suppress UKIP support back to the 6 – 8 per cent general election range forecast by Strathclyde political scientist John Curtice.

At the same time, the slump in Labour’s support in many polls in response to the recent UKIP surge has dented the confidence of an upcoming majority that had been bolstered by earlier stronger polls for almost nine months. The Independent reported Peter Hain as urging his leader to create the basis for a possible coalition government with the Liberal Democrats if the next election produced a ‘hung Parliament’, and deploring the Labour unpreparedness on this front in 2010, documented by Lord Adonis.

Counting down to the next general election

But how soon might this split occur, and what might it look like?  In February 2012, on this blog, Patrick Dunleavy of LSE predicted that we were very likely to see an election in June 2014 – barely 13 months from now, and just four years from the last one. He argued, that although the coalition parties had tried to outlaw an earlier election (at the PM’s discretion) by legislating for a five-year fixed term for Parliament, the law still allowed for an earlier election if no one could form a government and 2/3 of Commons agreed.  Rather than hang on to the bitter end, the coalition would be likely to ‘unzip’ in the months leading up to May 2015, in order for the parties to take advantage of regained independence whilst campaigning. But once unzipping starts, it will be hard to stop the unravelling from speeding up. Since no PM has called an autumn general election for 41 years now, if not 2015 then the logic for Cameron of calling a May/June 2014 election was strong, assuming the economy improves somewhat in the interim.

Responding to this argument, Chris Hanretty of East Anglia University argued that the coalition would be most likely to fall in October 2014. Using modelling and data from other countries in Europe, Hanretty found that coalition cabinets are liable to breaking up earlier than those of single party governments. Using his model, he predicted that the current coalition has a less than one in three chance of lasting all the way until May 2015.

In response to these two claims of a near definite early demise for the coalition, Tim Bale wrote that, given what we know (and don’t know) about coalitions in the UK and elsewhere, there is just as much chance the coalition will fail before 2015 as continue. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrat political expert Mark Pack countered that the government would go its full term because, whatever the difficulties of keeping the government together, Cameron could never resign early and run the risk of Ed Miliband becoming PM of a minority government. In Twitter commentary the Nottingham academic Phil Cowley (@philipjcowley) argued strongly that no PM can (ever) bear the thought of giving up office, however difficult being in government may be, and however grim the government’s prospects may be. So he predicted that Cameron would hang on until the last possible moment, as John Major did in 1992 and 1997, and Gordon Brown in 2010. (Neither brought great successes for their party though).

Earlier this month, Alun Wyburn-Powell recalled the often overlooked 1945 Caretaker government as a precedent for what might well occur before 2015. This shortlived two month, Tory-only government “proved to be a useful firewall between an effective [wartime] coalition and a divisive election campaign”. He argued that if the Liberal Democrats were to amicably withdraw from the current coalition prior to the election campaign in early 2015, the Conservatives could then continue in a Caretaker government so that both parties could offer their own independent manifestos. This would give the Tories the opportunity to promote (albeit briefly) some new MPs to Ministerial positions, potentially calming some of the party’s dissenting voices.

No matter what, unless David Cameron desires to break with an over 40 year tradition and have an autumn election, in less than a year’s time we will know with near certainty whether or not the coalition will go to its full term.

Chris Gilson – LSE Public Policy Group and Managing Editor of the EUROPP blog

Chris Gilson joined the LSE PPG in December 2007 as Editor/Researcher and has worked on the long-standing hot review contract with the National Audit Office, and review work for the European Court of Auditors. He was previously Managing Editor of the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog and is now the Managing Editor of EUROPP – the LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog. Before this, he worked for three years at the Department of Health, firstly as a Correspondence Officer and then as a Freedom of Information Officer. He has a undergraduate and a Masters degree in Geography, and a postgraduate diploma in Strategic Management, all from the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. 


This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Democratic Audit nor of the London School of Economics. It was originally posted on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy Blog, and can be viewed here

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