Magazine article The Spectator

The Coalition May Be United, but in the Commons Its Adversarial Politics as Usual

Magazine article The Spectator

The Coalition May Be United, but in the Commons Its Adversarial Politics as Usual

Article excerpt

In this era of 'new politics', one might have expected a new, more consensual style of debate in the Commons chamber. But judging by the opening days of the debate on the Queen's speech, we have got quite the opposite. MPs are keener than ever to shout each other down, to cheer their own side and barrack the other. The one difference from the last parliament is that many of the new Labour MPs make their point by clapping rather than bellowing the traditional 'Hear him, hear him'.

Oddly enough, it is the coalition - the very apogee of this new more consensual politics - that is making MPs behave like this. The Tory-Lib Dem alliance has raised the partisan stakes for all three parties.

Many Labour MPs believe that the Liberal Democrats' decision to go into government with the Tories provides them with an opportunity to destroy their opposition on the left.

Even David Miliband, the most pluralist of the Labour leadership contenders, now talks of building a 'progressive consensus' inside the Labour party rather than across parties.

Labour wants the public to believe that the Liberal Democrats pimped their principles for power, that thousands of public sector workers will lose their jobs so five Lib Dems can have Cabinet jobs. This is why Labour has put so much time into trying to establish a narrative that the third party were intent on going with Mr Cameron regardless of what other offers they received.

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats need to persuade their own left-leaning voters and activists that they had no alternative than to do a deal with the Tories. So they talk about Ed Balls's 'sneering attitude' in the coalition negotiations and claim that Labour was never really serious about coming to any agreement. They also must trash Labour's record to justify the cuts that are coming. It is no coincidence that it was the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury who revealed that his Labour predecessor had left him a letter saying 'Sorry, there's no money left'.

That the Liberal Democrats realise how much is at risk is demonstrated by their behaviour in the Chamber. On Tuesday, one looked like he would burst a blood vessel as he jumped off the green benches to scream 'five more years' in response to Labour taunts.

For the Tory leadership, the easiest way to cheer up the troops, many of whom have been rather discombobulated by this whole new politics thing, is by attacking Labour. In this changing world, there is something deeply reassuring for Tories in seeing Cameron ripping into the old enemy. In his reply to Harriet Harman in the Queen's Speech debate, Cameron immediately went on the partisan offensive; criticising Harman for not having apologised for Labour's record. The Tory benches roared their delight. They had little intention of heeding Churchill's dictum about magnanimity in victory.

One also imagines that Cameron rather enjoys putting a bit of stick about. When the Tories were in opposition, I asked one member of his team why the attempts to have the leader rise above yah-boo politics lasted such a short time. He replied, 'Dave essentially thinks that politics is about arguments, showing why your opponent is wrong.'

Of course, what is happening in the Chamber is very different from what is happening in Downing Street and across Whitehall. …

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