The Lib Dems have a big problem with Coalition politics. They are the one party that believes coalition government can be better than majority party government. They are the one party of the top three that know they will need a coalition in future if they are to be in government again. Despite this, they cannot help themselves from constantly criticising the Coalition government from without. Some of their Ministers are endlessly making proposals they know Conservatives cannot accept from outside the government despite being members of it.
As someone who is sceptical of coalition this neither surprises me nor dismays me. However, I do not want it to get in the way of doing things now that would help turn our economy round. Surely for at least the first three years of the planned five year coalition Lib Dem Ministers should concentrate on doing the things that Conservatives and Lib Dems agreee about? The aim should be to stress the advantages of the polices that both parties can accept, not to stress the frustrations that Lib Dem Ministers feel with things the Conservatives will not accept. The aim should be to find more things that both parties can happily do together.
There are many Conservatives today like me who want to see more freedom for UK citizens. We feel the state has grown too big and bossy. We want a government which trusts more of the people more of the time. We want a government with the confidence to repeal some of the excessive number of laws and rules we have, and to cut back on the number of things the state interferes with at considerable cost. I thought there was meant to be a strong strand of liberalism within the Lib Dems. Can’t we have some more of this?
I went to see Nick Clegg early on in the governent’s life. There were strong rumours that he was going to put through a Freedom Bill. I took forty or so proposals for repeal to add to his measure. I set them out for him in writing. In the meeting I explained that doubtless he would not like all of them, but several of them would seem natural for Lib Dems to welcome. I expected that if he had another list I would like many of the items on it. He was friendly, but it ended with the news that he was not going to put through such a Bill after all. Isn’t it time to revive it?
Conservatives are tax cutters by instinct. We do get a little weary of hearing that the wish to cut Income Tax is a unique Lib Dem proposal. We are willing to cut Income Tax in the particular way they wish to get some tax cuts through. Together the parties should be able to come up with a stronger agenda to cut tax on enterprise and effort.
At the start of the government’s life I was asked by a senior Conservative Minister what I thought of the idea of major reform of the NHS. I said that “would be brave Minister” and went on to suggest not attempting it in this Parliament, given that we had not won the election and given likely coalition pressures. I argued that successful reform of education and welfare would be difficult enough. When I read the Preface to the White Paper on NHS Reform signed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg I decided that their vision was one I should support. I overcame my worries and have ever since voted for the measure and done my best to explain the government’s case for it. I was also swayed in favour by some of the comments in the Lib Dem’s Orange Book and their Manifesto, though their proposals went further than I would have chosen myself. I therefore find it surprising, eighteen months on, to read that it is the Lib Dems who are toning this measure down or saving the NHS from these reforms, when they had such impeccable Lib Dem origins and support as well as appearing in the Conservative manifesto.
The cruel paradox for Lib Dems is this. They need to show coalition works. Instead, every time Labour attacks them from the left for daring to support it, Lib dems are wobbled off and attack the coalition with Labour. They are undermining the public’s view of coalition at the very time they should be trying to show it works.