Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Lib Dems declare 'rhetoric war' on Conservative allies

This week's Liberal Democrat party conference in the UK has been generating big headlines in the British press as each successive speaker tries to outdo the previous one in denouncing the party's coalition allies. But do the harsh words signal an impending divorce with the Conservative Party, or are they merely a move to stop the freefall in Lib Dem support.

According to opinions polls the party has lost more than half of its supporters since its decision to join with the Conservatives to form a coalition government last year. A subsequent u-turn on tuition fees and the loss of the alternative votereferendum – the prize they had been awarded for allying with the Conservatives – has sent the party to what some think could be their lowest popularity ever. This despite the fact that they are now in government for the first time.

The language being used at this week's conference shows the party is going to try a drastic change of tact in order to stop the haemorrhaging of support. Though they have been restrained in showing major disagreement with their coalition partners over the past year, after this week the honeymoon is clearly over - rhetorically at least.

 Today Energy Secretary Chris Huhne delivered a scathing attack on the Conservative Party's right flank, comparing them with the "madcap" Tea Party movement in America. He warned that those hard-line elements of the Conservative Party not to go the same way as their American counterparts, warning them "if you keep beating the anti-European drum, if you slaver over tax cuts for the rich, then you will put in peril the most crucial achievement of this Government." And he vowed that the Lib Dems will stand in the way of that hard right element of the Conservative Party getting what they want.

Huhne had particularly sober words for Eurosceptic Tories who have sought to use the crisis in the eurozone to argue that the UK should cut ties with the EU and repatriate powers. "Being part of Europe is not a political choice," he said. "It is a geographical reality. It always was and until the tectonic plates break up, it always will be."

Deputy prime minister and party leader Nick Clegg sounded a similar note yesterday, telling the conference that the Tories remain their "political enemies" despite the alliance. Business Secretary Vince Cable decried the Conservatives' resistance to increasing taxes on the wealthy and curbing executive pay. Deputy party leader Simon Hughes said the Conservatives were "ruthless and extreme"

Ironically, the motivation behind all this Tory-bashing is likely a move by the party leadership to defend their political alliance. Party president Tim Farron opened the conference by trying to make this case, saying that a Conservative government would have been an "absolute nightmare" had the Lib Dems not diluted their policies by entering the coalition. While admitting that the decision to enter the coalition had "tainted" the party brand, he said such a sacrifice was necessary to stop the Conservatives from having absolute power.

But it was one line in Mr. Farron's speech that likely has Nick Clegg and his cabinet ministers worried. Farron told the crowd that "divorce is inevitable" in the Lib Dem-Tory marriage and it would likely come in "three or four years". This would be before the intended term of the partnership until the next general election in 2015. The line received thunderous applause in the Birmingham auditorium, which in turn has prompted speculation that Farron, who is on the left flank of the party, might challenge Clegg for the leadership. Clegg is also keenly aware that from inside the conference hall, people can here the demonstrators outside protesting the coalition's budget cuts.

Clegg is likely keen to stress his disagreement with the Conservatives in order to keep the contrast between himself and Farron from looking too stark. The message is this: you need us to stay in government, because we are the only thing that keeps the Conservative Party's hard right, eurpsceptic flankaway from exercising power. The Conservatives are forced to moderate their positions because the Lib Dems are with them in government.

For their part the British media doesn't seem to know what to make of the aggressive tone toward people who are supposedly political allies. It is after all the UK's first experience with a coalition government in many decades. I've asked some German friends if such intra-coalition sniping is typical in German politics. It seems the best comparison, since the German government is also a Conservative-Liberal coalition.

My German friends tell me that while it would be normal for the Liberals (FDP) to clearly outline their differences with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, it would be unusual for them to use such aggressive language. It would be surprising for them to describe their allies as "political enemies" who are "ruthless and extreme". But considering that the German Liberals are now also suffering plummeting popularity due to a coalition alliance that now feels like a noose around their neck, perhaps they may soon take a page from the playbook of their British counterparts.

With Angela Merkel's re-election prospects looking increasingly uncertain, the Liberals will be keen to distance themselves well before the 2013 election. They may also decide to adopt a populist approach to the eurozone issue in order to reverse their falling support. There is increasing speculation that they may suddenly do a U-turn and oppose the bail-outs, a move which could cause the collapse of the German government.

Only time will tell of these two marriages will last, or if they will be abruptly cut short. But with so much uncertainty still plaguing the European markets, the collapse of either the German or British coalition governments would be extremely bad economic news.

1 comment:

Fran said...

I don't think we should underestimate how much the disagreements within the coalition also help the Tories.

Firstly, the Tory leadership are basically liberals, who probably prefer the Lib Dems to their own right wing. The coalition gives them the cover to do what they want, and what detoxifies their party in the eyes of Metropolitan/centrist Britain, as on the environment, gay marriage, and so on.

The disagreements shore up their own base, who will be much more motivated to get the Tories a proper majority next time if they feel that the Lib Dems look aggressive on policy.

And it basically excludes the Labour party from political discourse. It doesn't help Labour that they have a nonentity of a leader and nothing in the way of policies at the moment, but in any case all of the interesting political battles are being fought by the coalition partners. The opposition is sidelined.