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Laura Kuenssberg: Coalition Rules

The main parties need to come clean with voters over their readiness to work with their rivals, says Laura Kuenssberg

 

So David Cameron proclaims he won't be part of a government that would not offer a referendum on Europe. Danny Alexander tries to rule out minority rule. Nick Clegg tells us he's equidistant between one political rival and another. Ed Miliband says officially he's going all out for victory, although reports mysteriously appear suggesting that working with that rival, the Deputy Prime Minister, would be worth swallowing to get Labour into government.

Hands up if you think those kinds of statements or the promises made between now and the election will be sacrosanct under the pressures of a potential coalition negotiation? Nope, not many. Hands up anyone who thinks David Cameron would choose a period of minority rule with a fractious party of backbenchers containing fewer MPs from marginals over another deal with the Lib Dems, painful though that may be? Nope.

And hands up who thinks the Lib Dems would cling limpet-like to all the policies in their manifesto faced with losing the ministerial places they have enjoyed for four years and had never really dreamt of? Nope. And lastly, who thinks Ed Miliband would be brave enough to opt to govern on his own with no overall majority? Erm, right now probably not that many of you.

But here is the problem. When you ask a politician on the record what they would ditch and what would in contrast be up for grabs during days of post-election bargaining they just won’t be drawn. ‘That’s a hypothetical, you can’t expect me to answer that now!’; ‘We’re still a year away, we don’t yet know what the will of the British people will be.’ Cue outrage and indignation at the temerity of even posing that question. Except, of course, when they occasionally want to use the possibility as a useful message to their own side, hence Cameron's message to activists, and Alexander's 'look, we matter and still will’ message on minority rule.

But as we approach the General Election the questions that will be asked of each party, whether they like it or not, will be not just ‘would you work with one of your enemies if you had to in a majority government’, but ‘if you would, what would you do?’.

The big difference in this campaign for the Liberal Democrats will be whether voters want more, not just of them, but of political parties working together in coalition – the question they wanted voters to ask for so long, after years facing the previously unanswerable doorstep poser: ‘you won’t be in government, so what’s the point of voting for you?’. But for all parties, although senior sources insist they will be focusing entirely on winning, the questions will flow. Can you work with others? And more crucially, what would you ditch in order to do so?

And it won’t just be frustrated hacks, or even former senior civil servants – one of whom told me “there’s no way they’ll be able to get through the campaign without identifying their red lines” – who will be posing the hypotheticals. The voting public are not an unquestioning mass, but a complex and ever-changing sophisticated group who will want to know, if they vote for the Conservatives, whether they are choosing someone who would be happy and indeed will plan privately for Coalition 2.0.

They will want to know if they are voting for a potential Labour prime minister who would proactively try to form a government with Liberal Democrats, and what he likes or dislikes about their plans. And they will want to know, if they are voting for the Liberal Democrats, whether their priority is maintaining the ability to have any impact on actual government policies, or if they are voting for a party who, frankly, would be happy slinking back to an easier, if less influential role, commentating from the sidelines.

There is a lot of distance to travel before this conundrum reveals itself more fully. A lot of polls, not least a lot of voting to get through first of all – the local and European elections, the Scottish referendum and, of course, the Newark by-election.

But by next May, voters – along with frustrated hacks, of course – will want to know what will and will not actually be up for discussion the day after the election. The difficulty is that so far there is no mechanism for this to take place – manifestos will not appear with a handy appendix of negotiating positions. But while there are those in the most senior echelons of each party who might argue differently, claiming that coalition has not fundamentally changed the nature of campaigning, answers of sorts to those basic questions will have to be found.

 

Laura Kuenssberg is BBC Newsnight’s chief correspondent 

 

 


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