For parents, the least worst prospect is Britain – an hour away by air, regularly home at the weekends, accessible and close by. The British labour market was never more important to the Irish.
British politicians are mere virgins in the business of coalition government. Our electorate are accustomed to post-ballot horse-trading since the late 1980s when Haughey crossed the Rubicon of Fianna Fáil’s core value of single-party government. Faced with a hung parliament in the Dáil, we start with a calculator and work out which combination of parties adds up to 84 TDs. This is the magic figure that exceeds 50% of our 166 deputies.
The modus operandi thereafter is each party nominates a negotiating team, respective policy manifestos are copied, pasted and merged, key paragraphs are red-lined and worked on with the language of compromise.
The raison d’être of Irish politics has been to get into government at all costs. Fianna Fáil’s brand is predicated upon “we are the party of government – we get things done”. This mantra tells business, union leaders and lobby groups that their self-interest is served by sticking close to Fianna Fáil. Ample patronage can be dispensed from Government Buildings.
The cornerstone of coalition is mutual self-interest. Hang together long enough for better times to arrive. Separately, the parties will sink. The career and survival of party leaders depends on lasting out the full term. This flexible, unprincipled approach to politics and policy now prevails across Europe.
The programme for government is sustained by teams from each party of special advisers and managers. These apparatchiks grease the wheels of government continuity. They provide early warning mechanisms and fine tune policy details – providing jobs for the boys to boot.
These characteristics are now taking root in British politics. The House of Commons’ arithmetic pointed to only one stable configuration: Tories + Lib Dems easily surpassed the 325 votes. Both parties gained votes in the election, even though the Lib Dems lost seats. Each party endured sterile opposition politics for the past 13 years. The difference between a political party and a debating society is being in power – talking and walking. Little surprise former Liberal leader Charles Kennedy is more comfortable with a talking shop. Being in government provides oxygen to the body politic. Without it you are feckless also-rans. Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson tried frantically to conjure a Lib/Lab pact, but Ed Balls and the Miliband brothers torpedoed any tenuous hopes because of their personal leadership ambitions. They need Labour to regroup in opposition with a counter-attack strategy. One of the Milibands will win – most likely David.
Support for political parties across most democracies is fundamentally evolving into greater fragmentation. It is increasingly impossible for any party to be so ‘catch-all’ in order to garner more than 50% of the vote. Competition across Britain for support now includes regionally-based parties such as the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru. Niche parties have cropped up all across Europe, with a narrow focus of appeal to sectional voters. More multi-party governments are inevitable in Westminster.
Will this new government last? There are three areas of policy that seem polarised. Immigration is a potent divisive issue – ask Gillian Duffy. The ‘haves’ in society do not want the doors opened to limitless refugees and jobseekers from eastern Europe and commonwealth countries. Jobs are too scarce and school-leavers too plentiful to facilitate generosity.
The Lib Dems advocated an amnesty for all those domiciled in Britain for the past ten years. The Tories want to shut the door and limit the inflow. This will create discontent at both ends of the spectrum, but is unlikely to bring down the government.
Britain’s relationship with Europe splits the Conservative party. Contrast Ken Clarke with William Hague. Add in Nick Clegg’s positive affirmation of closer links with Brussels and you have a recipe for deep division. The British will not forsake their pound. The euro is sufficiently unattractive for this to be a point of termination. This leaves the most fraught issue of all – electoral reform.
The first-past-the-post system has served the Tories well. Throughout the Thatcher era it provided them with more than half the seats on less than 50% of the vote. This seat bonus has denied the Lib Dems. They obtain less than 10% of the seats with up to one-quarter of the vote. The fundamental perspective of each party on electoral reform is diametrically opposed.
When an irresistible force meets an immovable object in politics, the only safety valve is to allow each side retain its aspirations. They will revert to the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire formula – ask the audience. A referendum can effectively fudge this dilemma, allowing both sides to argue their case. There remain two reform options: multi-seat PR or single-seat constituencies with PR (same as our by-elections). Any gerrymander will not be tolerated by the public.
The downfall of this new government may not come from a big ticket issue. Time and effort can prepare the ground for compromise and circumvention. It would be reasonable to expect an attrition of MPs that will fall or jump overboard.
VERICKS too fond of the sound of their own voice and the dispossessed (no ministerial jobs, eg, David Davis) will undoubtedly find issues of principle on which to depart thereby reducing the Government’s majority. Our present FF/Green alliance continues to dwindle in this fashion. There is a sufficiently large surplus for Cameron’s coalition to last the distance.
The biggest threat to the durability of this new administration is inexperience. Neither Cameron nor Clegg has ever served in cabinet. Both have been depicted as upper-class toffs, as if it was some form of criminal record. Stereotyping is merely an opponents’ ploy.
The Tory leader is the youngest prime minister in 200 years. There has never been a younger deputy prime minister. We shouldn’t underestimate the toughness and resilience required to withstand the heat of high office. A rhinoceros-like hide is required to ignore taunts, criticism, ridicule and abuse.
Hostility is heading their way, given the inevitable level of fiscal austerity, through £6bn of expenditure cuts and tax hikes that have to be administered in the imminent emergency budget. Their public appearances will attract angry street protests. Honeymoon will be followed by hiatus. If they can survive intact for the first year, they have an excellent chance of serving the full fixed term.
The two key anchors of longevity will be the principle of collective cabinet responsibility and mutual personal trust. They have access to one major resource. Remember Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister? The mandarins will teach them the golden rule of survival in office: expediency rules OK.