There was a peculiar feel to the cabinet’s final meeting before the general election, more like the last day of a school term than a final hoorah. Ministers were keen to point out that, despite significant doubts from several corners, this government has survived its full five-year term while David Cameron and Nick Clegg both paid generous tributes to each other. The mood was very much one of self-congratulation but was this warranted and how will the last five years shape proceedings in the forthcoming election?
When Nick Clegg and David Cameron stood in the Downing Street rose garden on that sunny day in May 2010 it seemed to be the textbook marriage of convenience and, at the time, few predicted it would last one year, let alone five. No-one can deny that it’s been a bumpy ride but, credit where credit’s due, here we still are with Prime Minister Cameron and Nick Clegg as his deputy.
By merely surviving, the coalition has been far more successful than many would have predicted and the country’s economic outlook has significantly improved. In many ways, the government has delivered the liberal conservatism Cameron said he wanted when he became Tory leader in 2005 and there’s no doubt that the presence of the Lib Dems have softened some of the Chancellor’s more vicious cuts. We need only look at our European neighbours to see that the coalition has, against all the odds, been a source of stable government during the most unstable economic period in recent history.
By surviving and by steering the economy onto a stable course, the coalition has been a success but that does not paint the full picture. Ahead of the upcoming election, the polls point to another hung parliament with Labour and the Conservatives as the neck and neck in the polls (Editor’s Note: Two polls this weekend put Tories at 36% and Labour at 32% and vice versa…). Perhaps the public has not bought into the coalition’s project quite as enthusiastically as last week’s cabinet meeting would suggest. Zero hour contracts, the hike in tuition fees and the alleged privatisation of the NHS list but a few of the significant complaints against this government. Britain’s global and even European status has weakened substantially and Cameron only just escaped being the Prime Minister responsible for the breakup of the United Kingdom.
It has been a long, hard five years and people are sick to death with austerity but a majority for any party in the next election looks highly unlikely. At this stage, the most likely outcome is a Labour minority government reliant on SNP co-operation but not the implausible Labour-SNP coalition – a Labour-Lib Dem deal looks equally unlikely. Cameron would happily work with the Lib Dems again if it meant stopping Labour but could Clegg really rally his troops behind the Tories for another five years? Only one thing seems certain: it is going to be messy.
The most likely outcome of this election is a minority government propped up on informal agreements. The 70-plus majority of the last five years would seem like a distant pipe-dream if a Tory or Labour government has to live with the endless horse-trading and knife-edge Commons votes of a minority government. Regardless of political allegiance, a coalition would be the best result for the country in terms of stability but is there an appetite for it? Sadly, after the discontent of the last five years, we might have to go through the turmoil and insecurity of a minority government before we get the taste for coalition again.