The internet appears to be going crazy over the story that Nick Clegg will instruct Lib Dem MPs today to abstain in a largely symbolic vote on whether David Cameron should refer sleaze-monster Jeremy Hunt to the investigative wrath of Sir Alex Allen, almighty keeper of the ‘ministerial code’.
This story itself isn’t particularly interesting. It’s actually just a load of political posturing to mask a squabble over what we all know, but can’t prove, anyway – Hunt was appointed to see the BSkyB bid go through without a hitch by a party who’s relationship with the Murdoch empire closely resembles that between Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Note, indeed, that it’s a symbolic vote and the final decision remains with Cameron. Note further that the Lib Dems are abstaining, possibly on the pretext that it’s Cameron’s choice!
What is more interesting to me is the nature of some responses which have come out of the explosion on Twitter. Some people seem to believe that Clegg is in the wrong here, and not because they believe that Hunt is actually innocent and that there’s no need to refer him to Allen (they may believe this, but it’s intriguingly not the cited reason), but for other reasons relating to the fact that the Lib Dems are in coalition with the Tories – and these reasons are worrying. I want to address a couple of these to highlight what I think is a worrying yet common idea: that the Tories and the Lib Dems are a unified party now.
It is called a coalition for a reason – “we are all in this together”
Apart from the tragic employment of Cameron’s most hated axiom, this is still flawed. In fact, it’s true that it is called a coalition for a reason. The only thing is that the reason is that it’s a group of non-aligned political parties who have agreed to act in unison on certain issues for whatever reason (“to generate a majority government for political expediency and to ensure governmental functionality” or “so Nick Clegg gets 5 years in the spotlight” – take your pick), and certainly not that it’s a couple of once separate political parties who have agreed to become one party for 5 years. That would be a “merger”, not a “coalition”.
The Lib Dems should be careful – what happens if the Tories abstain when Labour try to vote down a Lib Dem MP?
This one actually amazed me a bit. The Lib Dems are being criticised, in what must be a very refreshing change for them, for having too much principle and not deferring enough to practical considerations of self-interest. Given that I would prefer politicians to be principled and interested in what is right rather than what is expedient and self-serving, I’m not going to waste much time on this idea.
It’s the first quote that’s most interesting – though what’s wrong with it highlights why the second quote is so problematic. It’s worth considering that the coalition in itself does not have a democratic mandate, for anything. The Tories and the Lib Dems have some extent of electoral support independently, and they reckon they can functionally combine their support by acting on policies which mutually serve the respective sets of electoral interests on which they gained their support. That’s extremely woolly at times – we saw the worst of it with tuition fees, where there was no possibility that the Lib Dems could claim this was compatible with the proper moral grounds on which you could function within a coalition. However, for it to have any validity at all, distinctions between the parties need to be actively maintained.
After all, Hunt’s guilty as hell anyway.