The coalition is on life-support

by Rob Marchant

“Mummy, what is that man for”? This exquisite, though probably apocryphal, comment from a small child has been variously said to be about many politicians over the years, including Herbert Asquith. But Asquith’s successor a century later, Nick Clegg, may suddenly be finding that a real and painful question, as he reflects on the wreckage of last week’s European summit.

But first, what happened: Cameron vetoed a treaty amendment on European integration, leaving the remaining countries no alternative but to set up a separate group which would implement the deal outside the EU. It was technically a veto, but only technically: it stopped nothing. The sticking point was said to be the financial transaction tax (FTT), an oddly unfair idea that a group of countries with relatively small financial sectors could jointly gang up to tax the one country which has an unseasonably large one, and which would certainly have damaged British interests. In that sense he was right to veto. Since the FTT is unfeasible without Britain, it was very likely a deliberate ploy by Sarkozy, as Ben Brogan suggests, to insist on this point which he knew Cameron could not accept, thus removing the “difficult” Cameron from the scene and clearing the way for an EU which might just have a chance of agreeing what it needed to agree.

However, this does not mean a triumph for Cameron – far from it. It is, as former Downing Street chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, told John Rentoul, “the worst foreign policy disaster in my adult lifetime”. But not because of the FTT. It is a disaster because it should never have come to this. Sarkozy took this action precisely because he knew Cameron was hamstrung and would never co-operate. Rather than the EU limping around with a British club foot, Sarkozy ruthlessly opted for amputation. But Sarkozy is no fool: he must have seen the attractions of a deal, but didn’t see it as possible.

Perhaps the smartest observation over the weekend came from the Times’ David Aaronovitch, who tweeted: “I think this another of those increasingly common mega-events no-one can usefully call”. The truth is precisely that: no-one really knows with certainty whether the EU-26 will pull off the convergence deal. They will need to move their backsides for this to work, as Tony Blair points out in this interview. But if they do, Cameron will look a fool, beholden to his swivel-eyed backbenchers. If they don’t, he will look a far-sighted sage. We simply don’t know. Yet.

Ed Miliband, of course, is left in the unenviable position of not knowing, either. So, rather than risk getting it wrong, he is forced to fudge his answer. Inelegant, but perhaps necessary, given that he could not come down on the wrong side of an argument this important.

So where does this leave the coalition? Well, look at it this way: the Lib Dems used to stand for the three E’s: education, environment and Europe. Oh, and PR. Which have all been sold down the river respectively by (i) tuition fees, (ii) the Tories’ “put the husky to sleep” U-turns, recently highlighted by Mary Creagh MP, (iii) last week’s Euro-summit and (iv) the AV referendum, which they lost. All the things that the Lib Dems once stood for, in short, have now been washed away in a political downpour which has left Clegg high and dry. On this summit, Clegg has done the only thing he could do: go along with Cameron’s position, then act cross about it afterwards, as he did on the BBC on Sunday.

If, then, there is any clear lesson to be learned from last week, it must surely be this: that the coalition cannot continue after 2015. Why? Because the remaining, long-suffering Lib Dem voters, such as they are, will surely not now wear the Tories as partners in a general election. Even if Clegg does not split his party, which seems at least a possibility, they will likely survive only as a rump which distinguishes itself from the Tories in some way. But beyond that, it makes little sense to try and predict when and where the coalition will finally collapse.

The frustrating thing for Clegg is that he is actually right, in the sense that Britain is now “marginalised” in Europe. In not just the continental but the international press in general, almost all papers led, predictably, with gleeful “Britain isolated” headlines, and that is all that most people abroad can see. Incidentally, the worrying thing is that few of these observers seemed to be focusing on the rather more important issue of whether or not the summit achieved its aim of saving the euro, which the FT, among others, rather seemed to think that it did not. But that is another story.

On the home front, even were he not before, Clegg is surely a lame duck now. We have seen how much sway the Lib Dems really have over the things they care about: precious little. He can no longer hide that from his voters, and politics can be a cruel business. He has a non-job holding things together as best he can for the next two-and-a-half years – though with a ministerial car, if he succeeds – and then, in all probability, either some international role, or oblivion.

His goose is not yet cooked, but the oven light has gone off and the timer’s on.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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16 Responses to “The coalition is on life-support”

  1. swatantra says:

    xmas has come early for ed. tomorrows pmq’s will see clegg get a roasting from the guffaws from labour bences and speaker bercow threatening o suspend the house. incidently i wish he’d suspend the house for a couple of hrs just to teach tose schoolboys and girls a lesson. yesterday he promised to dish some dirt on an ex-uni colleague of his.
    anyway, i’ve sai this elsewhere, the tories need the limmers much more than the libdemmers need the tories. siod the ministerial cars, if nick wants to save the party from further humiliation he has topull out of the coalition now and sack vince and danny, and restore some pride in the party. let the tories continue as a minority govt, which they are quite capable of doing.
    or as i’ve earlier suggested, its time for a govt of national unity and recovery.
    that way all 3 parties and leaders can save face, for their appalling performance. and they get to save the country, as there is in reality only a rizla paper of difference between their current policies.

  2. Nick says:

    Here’s an alternative.

    Sarkozy knows he is up shit creek. With a pending downgrade, the French government’s expenditure is going to rise.

    So he does what any government does, UK, include. When its up the creek it looks around for where the money is. It then tries to take that money, irrespective of the damage just to keep its scams going.

    In this case Sarkozy decides that its the financial system it is going to hit. Cameron rightly doesn’t play ball.

    Now Sarkozy will blame Cameron for its borrow and spend binge. It’s those nasty foreigners.

    So Cameron wins where it matters. He keeps the money in the UK.

    For example, if we are looking for blame, how about taxing Mercedes.

    Greek peasants bought lots of Mercedes. They bought it with borrowed money and didn’t pay it back. If Mercedes did’t sell to Greek peasants, the Greeks wouldn’t have gone bust. So lets go for all German car makers (after all if one is guilty, they all are).

    What the UK should do is resist any short selling ban. People want to hedge their risks. The French can buy up their debts, and those wanting to get out or hedge can sell or short.

    On Clegg, he is a laughing stock.

    Now for this deal and Labour. It’s in favour. What’s it going to cut to get the deficit down to 7 bn.

    133 bn of cuts. If its in favour, it must know what to cut. It’s even more aggressive cutting that Cameron.

    I’m all ears

  3. Nick says:


    Remember the summit solved nothing. The Eurozone is still bankrupt.

  4. lefty says:

    good article but i had to laugh at some of the mixed metaphors… clegg has suffered a downpour that left him high and dry, and he’s also a lame duck whose goose is cooked? #bannedlist

  5. figurewizard says:

    You say that; “Britain is now “marginalised” in Europe. Well their cash has become marginalised almost to the point of extinction. Given this, the proposed tax on financial services was nothing more than an attempt to extort financial support from our economy to prop up the Euro. This has become important to them because Merkel has stoutly refused to commit Germany to a badly needed but inevitably futile rescue. Cameron was right to walk away.

    As for the Lib – Dems they won’t have as many long suffering voters next time and their representatives’ reaction to Cameron’s veto will have played a part in that. Stand by for defections to both sides of the house over the next few years.

  6. Ralph Baldwin says:


    I think what the voters will do in 2015 will be very interesting. I suspect political cynicism will prevail and they will lurch to the safest option and I do not need to spell out who they are. As for me I am finished with politics soon and am returning to a proper profression as representative politics is dead and the agenda fixed as to prevent the necessary radical economic reforms that are needed in Europe as well as the UK.

    I shall defer to a friends advice and let business lead the gormless politicans and (mostly) dodgy economists lol.

    The Libs are in big trouble but no more so than Labour although the scales are different, the hypocracy, so incredibly blatent when it exercises criticims of the Lib dems for “abandoning traditional principles for power” or on the Tories on almost any issue but especially blaming the Tories for the de-regulatory position they held whilst Labour was in power is laughable.

    It makes the party appear as a bunch of blubbing babaies who blame bodies that do not run the country for the decisions they themselves make, it makes them look weak and worse incapable of accepting genuine responsibility with power as well as competance.

    My divorce with the pro-corruption Corporate banking Labour Party is over and I am a free man. It’s a liberating experience and the repetitive experience of being embarressed at the out of touch and less than talented PLP comes to a welcome end.

    Wish you the best for the future Rob and try and keep an open mind on your economics, the answers do indeed lie outside the box lol and I wish you all the best of British luck in finding them.

    As for Cameron he is now on route to victory as I kinda predicted from what I know the people I have met campaigning (Total Politics) and has very little to worry about in Europe, France has desired a two tier Europe for years, the changes Germany and France are pushing are typical of the unelites and will end in tears.

    There is a huge sense of powerlessness amongst the British public and they command over their lives and their destinies and it has manifested in all sorts of ways as I have discussed before.

    Ed will beconme increasingly irrelevant and it’s essential for you and your party that you begin to reslise it would be no different under David M. In fact you would be taking even longer on the journey of mea culpa and his arrogance after such a fundamental economic blunder fed by self-interest would harm you all.

    You do not have a Leader you have a strange clan of pals, cronies and weird almost incestuous family clinging blatently to the money regardless of what is actually in your party interest. The contempt they have for the public and the membership is fed by the fact nobody in the Party has challenged them, recognised what they are doing and so they continue in their delusion that they are smart….the public do not agree.

    Cameron then, has to increase democracy along with competition and also find new ways to fund training, skills etc etc and take the pressures off of manufacturing and creative industries along with research.

    All you lot have to do is reap your rewards and lose the next election and you will..I promise.

    The Tories need nothing short of an outright victory in the next election cameron needs it, as the Tories have failed to win for far too long and they are more willing to do what it takes to do so. Thier is real pressure there and the coalition is irrellevant. The Lib Dem Parliamentary party have only one interest enjoy a career they never expected and take what they can from Privy Council membership to the bonuses that go with power, their futures are secure and a term will do as long as they survive and they may…just hang on by the skin of their teeth.

    Interesting times ahead and Cameron has just learnt something very important, that the public are hungry for self-empowerment…the most important lesson he can ever learn. One Labour ignored and scoffed at.

  7. Stephen says:

    “It was technically a veto, but only technically: it stopped nothing. ”

    What a silly statement. It stopped the EU institutions from being used, ergo it stopped the EU from imposing it’s financial services directives on the UK.

    “In that sense he was right to veto. ”

    Why was he right if as you say it changes nothing?

    “Sarkozy took this action precisely because he knew Cameron was hamstrung and would never co-operate.”

    Merkozy took the action because they want the UK to fund their failing banks through the FTT. sure there was was an element of real politik but it did have material objectives.

    “His goose is not yet cooked, but the oven light has gone off and the timer’s on”.

    It’s Labour’s vote which has gone down in the opinion polls which is exactly what the LibDems want to see.

    I have noticed that the author has not mentioned the other major part of this and that is the 0.5 limitation on the structural deficit. This is a big attack on the left’s penchant for spending on good causes and then leaving the private sector to sort out the financing. In a nutshell Cameron has saved the Keynesians and therefore Labour’s usual financial strategy.

    Rob Marchant doesn’t sound grateful.

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    @swatantra: sadly didn’t get a roasting in PMQs. Don’t see Nick leaving coalition now, but they will certainly fight the election on distinct platforms. And yes, that will probably do very serious damage to his party, and could even destroy it. Govt of national unity unlikely, I’m afraid. For a start, coalition would have to break apart first.

    @Nick: yes Cameron was right to veto – as John Rentoul said, any PM would have done the same. But most would have got a deal before getting to that point. Btw, your analysis of Sarkozy assumes that an FTT on British banks were ever a real possibility – it wasn’t (in fact, it isn’t even *without* British banks). So, it’s a ploy, not a genuine suggestion.

    We agree on Clegg. But you’re wrong about Labour – we would not have accepted it, which is what Ed said.

    @lefty thanks for your #pedantry! I shall try harder next time 😉

    @figurewizard: The rescue is difficult, but it’s too early to say that it’s futile. Cameron has gambled that it is, but this is not yet at all sure. In fact, historical precedent rather shows the opposite – Britain on about three separate occasions has underestimated the determination of our Continental colleagues to press on. Yes, defections may be on the cards, a good point.

    @Ralph: Yes, both Lib Dems and Labour have their work cut out. Not sure if Europe changes will end in tears, we’ll see. Too early! Wish you the best too.

  9. Madasafish says:

    The LDs are in a mess: yes.

    But where do they go?

    Ditch the Coalition? If there is a General Election they will get massacred and lose about 2/3rds of their seats.

    Form a Coalition with Labour?


    No, they are stuffed.. and stuck..till 2015.

  10. Mike Homfray says:

    Ralph: that does read to me as if you have actually shifted over to a view which has more in common with the Tories – they have taken an anti-state and anti-EU line for a long time. If this is ‘self-empowerment’ then Labour has no choice but to ignore it, because it isn’t where we stand. Direct democracy is a right-wing, populist position – look at places which use referenda regularly, where the majority never provide the necessary taxation to assist the minority in need.

  11. Rob Marchant says:

    @madasafish: you may well be right, I certainly don’t rule out them going the distance till 2015. But in 2015 they will have to ditch the Coalition, as their supporters will not wear it. Either way, their vote is likely to decrease sharply.

    Btw I’d agree, it’s not in their interest to force an early election, so they would probably let the Tories carry on as a minority govt anyway by refusing to support a no-confidence vote.

  12. Stephen says:

    They didn’t look on life-support during PMQ. It looks like Ed M is in need of it though.

  13. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Mike you have a lot to learn about the people, the electorate and democracy and when we accept unacceptable behavior which is completely contradictory to what Labour was created for then it’s an acceptance to Tory values.

    As usual you make the wrong assumptions because you have limited grasp of public views which are actually very Left in some ways and Right in others. You are too blinkered and to disrespectful of people.

    The best advice I can give you is to get out and do some canvassing and meet and listen to as many people as you can even if they are very poor and learn from them.

    Labour is not fit for Government the PLP are too corrupt, reckless and dangerous and willing to do anything for money…even small sums of money. Better legitimate Conservatives than Conservative wannabes.

    All I see with Labour is a profound refusal to change and make things better for the people of the UK, to lead on business policy which is not about making childish judgements without experience.

    As for community based policy that has little to do with my position on the Ed vs David Cameron position. Mike you have to raise your game and stop making silly assumption and overly simplistic generalization you are a grown up so act like one and remember I am no longer in the Labour Party so childish tribal comments are irrelevant to me as I am anti-corruption and anti-privilege which means I am more akin to the likes of historic Labour figures than the PLP are any day of the week.

    Finally and most importantly I do what is best for the UK first. The Tories are hardly the best but they are the cynical position when
    Labour fails and it has failed and is failed it cannot even manage Equality as it practices fixes and privilege and your position that oh well a dodgy Labour Party is better than the Tories is a doomed philosophy and will change nothing.

    If anything your narrow view inability to change or be open minded makes you more conservative than me any day of the week. You will always say change means Blairism for example in an attempt to close debate and scare people with demons, and that is pathetic because you cannot terrorize people into voting and if you do you’ll find they vote Tory.

    Get out there and try and win people over to Labour arguments and you’ll learn how to focus Labour objectives of fairness, equality and optimism and not be so close minded and unable to cope with an open debate. I am not trying to get you to leave the Labour Party, not trying to lead you into a pit of despair, just making a case a case you cannot challenge because the Labour Party is in a pit of crap of its own making and refuses to make the tough decisions required to make it a half-decent political party attuned to the needs of the people.

    I strongly suggest Mike you go away and have a think because as I am writing this less than pleasant people are doing al they can to prevent me exercising even the most basic democratic rights as stated in the Human Rights Act and they are not members of the BNP, the Tory Party, the Lib Dems or the Greens.

    The Labour Party has collapsed morally and has made itself an enemy of community, society and any kind of morality and the root cause is simple….£££ and very weak people being promoted by the very weak people at the top of the dung hill.

  14. Mike Homfray says:

    Ralph: I regularly canvass in this area and we won seven extra seats last year and are on target to do the same. Things may be different in the south – the Feltham result was good, though

    Unlike you I’m not a populist. I don’t think you should alter a view just for popularity’s sake which also sets me apart from new Labour (I don’t have an ounce of sympathy for the stance of this blog, for a start). I do know what many public views are, but I don’t think that, for example, we should become an anti EU party because the EU is unpopular. We would have had none of the changes in social legislation with regard to equality if we waited for the public view to change first.

    I understand how you feel personally but to be honest, you knew when you became a councillor that there are things you have to rein in – and that means doing your arguing within the party not on the web, if you want to take a highly critical stance. The party rules are clear enough – and yes, they may be authoritarian but you agreed to sign up to them when you were selected for the council.

    I think you may well find that every other party works in similar ways – its one of the necessities of holding a party together

  15. Rob Marchant says:


    “What a silly statement. It stopped the EU institutions from being used, ergo it stopped the EU from imposing it’s financial services directives on the UK.”

    If you veto something, and then it goes ahead anyway without you, it’s not really a veto, is it? You have merely said you won’t take part. But everyone else will.

    A very good explanation was given by someone on Twitter: Everyone wants to go to the pub. I veto going to the pub. They go to the pub anyway, without me.

    Clear enough for you?

  16. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Arguing on the web Mike had nothing at all to do with my going independent lol and you do not argue within the Party you are not allowed to lol.

    This is the second time I have been a Councillor the first time we did discuss issues within the Party but not this time i have no idea where you get thes estrange ideas.

    Again another weird generalization, now I am a “popularity” lol, I don’t recall changing any of my views Mike over the past two years so again i have no idea what you are talking about.

    I’ll leave you to your blind subservience lol.

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