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Whatever happened to the Coalition government?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg [Alamy]

7 min read

To some it was a forced marriage doomed to fail. To others it was a chance to get different ideas around the table. Sebastian Whale talks to coalition-era politicians about life in – and the legacy of – the Conservative-Lib Dem years

Almost exactly a decade before Dominic Cummings’ press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden to justify his lockdown busting escapades there was another, no less infamous and rather more cordial, event held on the famous lawn. David Cameron and Nick Clegg, once political opponents, hailed the creation of the first coalition government since 1945.

It may not be too much of a stretch to suggest the first led directly to the second.

With the 2010 election throwing up a hung parliament, 57 Liberal Democrat MPs held the whip hand in negotiations, while the Tories were the largest party with 306 to Labour’s 258. David Laws, a member of the five-man Lib Dem delegation, says the talks with the Conservatives were “surprisingly cordial” despite an initial impasse over voting reform, unlike those with the Labour Party, which he describes as “much less comfortable”. 

This trend continued in government. Justine Greening, a former cabinet minister, says: “I would often be in sub-cabinet committees and then cabinet committees thinking that if the public didn’t know which one was the blue team, and which one was the yellow team, they would be hard-pressed to pick.”

“The chief whip and David Cameron looked at me as though I had stepped in a big heap of shit"

Not everyone was in favour of the coalition. Bernard Jenkin was among 15 Tory MPs invited to Cameron’s parliamentary office to discuss how to proceed. “Quite honestly, you don’t need to do this, David,” he said, advocating a confidence and supply arrangement instead. 

“The chief whip and David Cameron looked at me as though I had stepped in a big heap of shit,” he recalls. “They had their hands on the levers of power, almost, and I was threatening to destabilise it.” 

He was not alone. “I thought we should have ruled as a minority government,” says Peter Bone, Tory MP for Wellingborough, who lamented the party’s “shift to the left”. David Gauke, the former minister, was also nervous. “As it turned out, it made a lot of sense, and it worked very well, but I was sceptical the Liberal Democrats would be as supportive and co-operative as they turned out to be.”

The trepidation was understandable; political parties are not natural allies. When asked for his favourite joke, Cameron had once replied, “Nick Clegg.” When confronted about the jibe, the new Prime Minister mused: “We’re all going to have things that we said thrown back at us.”

The bonhomie on display in the splendour of the Rose Garden ushered in a new era of coalition politics, one that eventually gave way to increased partisanship and polarisation – the era of Cummings and Boris Johnson. But to what extent was the coalition responsible for that? And given the later devastation at the polls of the Lib Dems, with the loss of nearly 50 MPs, will we ever see another coalition of its kind again?

When considering the lasting impact of the coalition, former ministers point to various policies, from Michael Gove’s education reforms to the creation of universal credit, the Green Investment Bank and the “northern powerhouse”. Cameron’s fabled “big society” rarely gets a mention.

And the most enduring legacy of the coalition government is arguably that of austerity. 

Debates continue to rage about the necessity of austerity and its impact on the UK’s social fabric. While former ministers stand by the policy, they say a slight change of emphasis might have been preferable. “My view is that we perhaps should have done more through tax and a little less through spending,” says Gauke, who served in the Treasury throughout the coalition. He adds: “I think we did have to put the public finances on a sounder footing, and had we not done so, we would have been on weaker territory as we entered [the pandemic].”

The first coalition government in 2010

Former Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable argues that people are “wise by hindsight” in assuming a new government could have spent “merrily” without consequences. While he concedes the coalition could have focused a “bit more” on taxation, and the public spending cuts could have been “a bit less severe”, he maintains “the need for budgetary fiscal correction was undoubtedly true”.

The Tories went into the 2015 election pledging deeper spending cuts, particularly on welfare, though some argue then-Chancellor George Osborne had never expected to implement them fully. Laws, a former minister who wrote a book on the coalition years, says: “The core assumption of the Conservatives before the election was that they would not get a majority and would have to negotiate a coalition again.” Bone agrees: “The most surprised person when David Cameron won his majority was David Cameron.”

The same is suggested of Cameron’s commitment to an EU referendum, which came about due to high-profile Tory rebellions. Though the coalition commanded a strong majority, Conservative MPs clearly felt less obliged to support the government when voting on policies outside the party’s manifesto, such as on Lords reform and the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, two Lib Dem additions to the coalition agreement. Opposing its introduction, Jenkin told his fellow FTPA rebels: “They will rue the day they put this on the statute book.” After the paralysis of the Brexit years, which left a government unable to call a general election amid a deadlock in the Commons, he notes: “And we did.”

Gauke says the Lib Dems improved the government and helped “temper” the Tory right. “It meant the Conservative Party wasn’t beholden to its right wing, which turned out to be a problem once there was a small Conservative majority.” 

Jenkin, however, says the Tory leadership made a “total misjudgment” in “isolating” the Eurosceptics. “Party loyalty broke down because a great many Conservative MPs at one stage or another felt this isn’t really a Conservative government,” he says.

MPs often directed their angst at the “quad” formed of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Danny Alexander, who approved major policy decisions. 

While Greening says this centralisation of power into No 10 and No 11 was necessary to ensure the functioning of the coalition government, its continuation in subsequent administrations has been to the detriment of the cabinet. “I don’t think that necessarily makes for good government,” she says. 

The foursome was also decidedly male, pale, all of a certain age and three-quarters public school-educated; hardly reflective of Britain at the time.

It showed that parties from different political philosophies could come together and forge a joint platform

England does not love coalitions, said Benjamin Disraeli in 1852. While Cameron secured a surprise victory in 2015, the Liberal Democrats were eviscerated, returning just eight MPs. Opinions vary as to why; was it the manifesto-defying increase of tuition fees, the nature of smaller parties in coalitions, or a failure to distinguish themselves from the Tories?

Early signs of what was to come took place on 5 May 2011, the day of the AV referendum and the local elections, where the Lib Dems lost around 750 councillors and fell short in their hope for electoral reform. The party was aggrieved at the Tories’ tactics during the referendum. “It was certainly a setback [on voting reform],” says Cable. 

Will the Lib Dem experience chasten smaller parties, putting them off joining a future coalition? “There is that risk that people will conclude it’s too dangerous,” says Laws, who lost his seat in 2015. But, he adds: “And yet, the coalition was a pretty successful government. It showed that parties from different political philosophies could come together and forge a joint platform.” 

Greening agrees. “One of the reasons I believe in “levelling up” is you succeed when you reach into that wider talent pool and get very different ideas around the table. Ironically, the coalition did just that.”

Of the coalition-era politicians, Gove, Liz Truss and Grant Shapps still grace the cabinet table, but most of the senior leadership has gone, and the Cameroons yield little influence or presence in today’s Tory Party, largely destroyed by the Brexit vote. 

Though subsequent events might have undone the coalition’s legacy, those involved hope history will look back favourably on its key focus: two parties working together in the national interest – a loftier motivation than the power grab critics believe led to its inception. 

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