Not all splits are coalition splits

Posted on behalf of Peter Waller

The political commentariat love nothing more than predicting the end of the coalition, driven by splits and crises. And we have seen a rash of such stories this week over both energy policy and Leveson.

But the truth is a bit more complicated – and more interesting  –  than that.

Energy first. Until the middle of this year, DECC had been a beacon of coalition harmony in that both a Lib Dem Secretary of State and a full team of Tory Ministers were happily pursuing  a common policy with no obvious internal rows. There were admittedly some well reported disagreements with both George Osborne and Vince Cable –  but no one in Whitehall would regard those as anything other than conventional Departmental tensions not coalition ones.

But then Cameron sacked the mild mannered and coalition friendly Charles Hendry and replaced him with the much more populist and known climate change sceptic John Hayes. The only way to interpret this change was that the Tories were aware of growing unrest on their own backbenches – mainly on windfarms but also on energy costs  – and decided to throw them a little red meat.

And Hayes immediately decided that his new role entitled him not only to be a flagship for those restive backbenchers but to use his new role to attack his own Department’s policy in public. He hasn’t exactly been successful in that in that Ed Davey has first rebutted him and then proceeded to issue an Energy Bill which is far closer to existing policy than anything Hayes would support. DECC hasn’t got everything it wanted in the Bill – but what is missing can be put down to  the traditional funding concerns of the Treasury.

So is this a coalition split? No, for the very good reason is that it is actually a clear case of our old friend, the Tory split. Certainly the other leading Tory in DECC, Greg Barker, seems to have not the slightest problem with the policy he had been pursuing first with Huhne and now Davey.

Similar considerations apply to Leveson – though it is early to predict exactly how that will pan out when people have actually read it.  The interesting thing here is that over 50 Tory backbenchers have already come out in favour of statutory back-up to the press regulatory system. So again, it seems that the Tories are split rather more than the coalition is split.

But there are interesting lessons to be learnt from both energy and Leveson. We at the Constitution Unit have long believed that there will be no coalition split because it is highly unlikely to benefit either partner from ending it before 2015.  But what we are now seeing is the impact of the coalition on the way that politics is conducted in the UK.  That means a junior minister can attack his own Departmental policy and not be sacked. Government backbenchers don’t wait until their Prime Minister has announced his response to  a report before announcing how they will vote. And the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister can argue their different cases at the dispatch box on the same day.

To my mind that is nothing but healthy. As a former Whitehall civil servant, I know there are numerous issues on which there is genuine disagreements behind closed doors. If coalition means we see a few more of those disagreements out in the open, then three cheers!

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