What the Lib Dem response to the News of the World meltdown tells us about the government’s political strategy

by Atul Hatwal

For the moment, all eyes are on News International. Over the coming days, the focus will broaden as the political implications start to be fully felt.

At this stage, it’s difficult to tell definitively what the political fall-out will be, but one small political development has become apparent which will potentially have major consequences for Labour.

Note the position of the Lib Dems. They’ve staked out a distinctly more hawkish stance than Cameron, calling for tougher action, Rebekah Brooks’ resignation and a judge-led enquiry.

This follows on from a few weeks where Cameron and Clegg, last year’s political love birds, have been engaged in some seemingly sharper public exchanges.

The new mood was first evident on June 20th, when David Cameron subjected himself to the forensic questioning of Steve Wright in the afternoon on radio 2.

Out of the blue, he broke new political ground when he said that the Tories would have been tougher on immigration and welfare without the Lib Dems.

Apparently piqued, Clegg fired back two days later on his visit to Brazil saying that without the Tories the Lib Dems would have been tougher on the banks.

Looking at the change in tone, it’s easy to view this as a part of a linear process that starts with flowers in the Number 10 garden and ends in a bitter split. The New Statesman‘s Rafael Behr declared,

With the prime minister now attacking his deputy openly on the radio, it’s clear that the early truce is over. How will the two parties convince voters that coalition is still a viable option for 2015“?

The Lib Dem position on hacking would seem to back this up. It has certainly been written up as such.

Nick Watt majored on Clegg’s independence from News International and his growing desire to differentiate himself more clearly from Cameron, in his piece on this latest spat.

And the phrase “clear yellow water” has started to crop up a bit too regularly.

So as the honeymoon subsides and the grind of political marriage sets in, does the fall-out from hacking suggest that Labour can kick-back and wait for a bitter divorce to bring down the government?

Not quite.

Although that was Labour’s experience of living with the Liberals thirty-two years ago, Cameron and Clegg are not Callaghan and Steel.

What the Lib Dem response to this story suggests is that this prime minister and his deputy are in fact engaged in something quite different – they are trying to re-invent triangulation.

Since the early 1990s, the one political route to the centre ground for politicians of left or right has been to triangulate.

Step one, pick a fight with the recidivist elements of your own party to demonstrate centrist credentials. Step two, cast the opposing party as out of touch as the internal opponents just vanquished. Step three, move your tanks onto the centre ground.

It worked for Clinton, Blair, Bush and almost for Cameron.

If Cameron had followed through with Tory modernisation he might have made into office with his own majority.

But he didn’t and now he’s in a coalition where conventional triangulation doesn’t work. Instead of three positions, left, right and the winning middle, there are six – left, right and the middle within the coalition, and then left, right and the winning middle in national politics.

It’s possible to balance the internal politics of the coalition and pick the middle way only to find it is significantly off-centre as far as the electorate are concerned.

When Nick Clegg swallowed Tory plans for NHS reform in return for concessions on pet projects like constitutional reform, both of the coalition parties thought they had reached a happy middle path for their policy programme.

But the public and Clegg’s party took a very different view when faced with the reality of what was being proposed on for the health service.

Attempting double triangulation, first within the coalition and then without, across the range of government policies, is as difficult as the horrible maths that it sounds like.

Which is why there’s a new approach.

Cameron and Clegg are allowing the debate within the coalition to come out into the open in a managed way. Partially they are being driven by circumstance, but there is also calculation in what they are doing.

They need the internal coalition debate between the Tories and Lib Dems to subsume the national political discussion so that when they pick the middle way, they are at the centre of not just their parties but the public debate as well, and they are the ones – David Cameron and Nick Clegg – who are rising above partisan interests to their left and right, to compromise for the good of the country.

It resets the political task back to conventional triangulation with three options, left, right and the winning middle.

Over the next few years, expect to see many more stories of Tory and Lib Dem splits around the cabinet table. Expect to see skirmishes on banks, the health service, crime, constitutional reform, immigration and the environment. And expect lots of “if only we had a majority” and “If it was just down to me” from both leaders when explaining decisions back to their parties.

But in this careful dance of disagreement there will be certain things missing.

The economic fundamentals will never be questioned. There won’t be a split on deficit reduction or any alternate approach to growth.

The threats will be entirely synthetic – there will be no “back me or sack me” moment.

And there will be no clear reckoning for the disagreements. Differences will be briefed to the papers, coded speeches made, but then heat will drain out of the row, red lines will turn out to be guidelines and it will all subside into gentle agreement.

On hacking, the Lib Dems have given the impression of being tough, but the one thing their ministers have been very careful about is not to increase the pressure on Cameron to intervene in the BSkyB takeover.

At the one point where Cameron is most vulnerable and government has a clear role in protecting the public interest, the Lib Dems have gone for a walk.

As this story continues to unfold, the Lib Dems will remain more robust than Cameron in terms of the tenor of their comments, but they won’t push for real change.

It’s these missing elements that distinguish what Cameron and Clegg have set in motion from a real debate. Tory and Lib Dem ministers will use the process to give a nod and a wink at their base, while driving through their programme, same as before.

For Labour, the learning from how the Lib Dems have handled hacking is clear. When voices still yearning for a progressive majority begin to wonder if, based on briefings from the Lib Dem side, some common cause could in fact be made with them, don’t.

The fall of the News of the World changes nothing fundamental in politics.

Cameron and Clegg are as close as they ever were, they just have different political strategy.

Chasing after the Lib Dems again will only co-opt Labour into the coalition’s narrative.

When the Lib Dems don’t leave the government and stick with the Tories, as they will because beyond all else they are both standing on the same record, it will be Labour that is very publically pushed to the margins and triangulated out of contention.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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3 Responses to “What the Lib Dem response to the News of the World meltdown tells us about the government’s political strategy”

  1. I have to confess, I have been camped on various media outlets for the last couple of days and I hadn’t noticed the Lib Dems taking a more hawkish tone on NotW. Honestly. I can’t remember hearing a single Lib Dem saying anything at all about it. Except maybe Don Foster – and unsurprisingly I can’t recall *what* he said. This is not to say you’re wrong, of course. In fact the thrust of your piece is correct and emphasises the need for Labour essentially to forget about the Lib Dems. It shouldn’t even be, pace Tom Baldwin, a ‘Conservative-led’ government from your point of view – it’s a Tory government, propped up by the Lib Dems.

    [PS When it comes round to winter (of discontent or otherwise), can we expect a piece advising Labour not to eat the yellow snow?]

  2. Fred says:

    I think the haggling and bartering within the Tories and the Liberals, is about give and take, mind you how much harsher you can get on welfare, not to sure except concentration camps, they can use the interment camps labour used for immigrants and children.

    Once the Liberals make a break with the Tories suspect i will join the party, labour out it’s a Tory party with a small C, and the Tories well they are the Tories.

  3. Ian Blackburn says:

    I read on Politics Uk site that Labour – those in the westminister village I suppose – will be looking in a new way at Murdochs papers. Well, those not in the top section of the party will not miss Murdoch or his papers one bit. We hated his empire full stop. Did not like one bit every time our leaders were seen with him. Heard of parties our leaders went to or given by for Murdocks grattitude. Glad its all over. Perhaps the real message our leaders and those advising the party need to take on board. Our party is at street level. not in the cafe and wine bars and top resteraunts of London. Its about real people, who cant afford the life some in our party think is important. If the demise of – and thats a very premature idea – Murdoch does hopefully change anything. Its that our party leaders and those in ‘head office’ get back to the real people who DO matter. Ordinary men and women who are finding life very tough, that when they hear of lavish parties, eg. BBC Question Time Thursday night of Labour MPs dropping everything to attend one of Murdochs get togethers, get angry with our party as still being out of touch. If that changes, then the whole business of NOTW and telephone hacking won’t have been for nothing. And we can have a party that is back in reality of real, everyday life issues.

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