Coalition Could Stay in Power After Next British Election

Few Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would like it but they might not have much of a choice.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom deliver a news conference at 10 Downing Street, London, December 21, 2010
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom deliver a news conference at 10 Downing Street, London, December 21, 2010 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

Both parties in the British coalition government had reason to be feel good as Parliament went on recess last week. They might even stay in power together after the next election.

The Conservatives are glad to have a social security benefits cap in place while terrorist sympathizer Abu Qatada was deported to Jordan. There is also a European Union referendum bill to cheer up both Tory activists and lawmakers while Labour has been damaged by revelations that its biggest union donor tried to rig an election. The economic recovery is gathering pace. The last quarter saw growth of .6 percent. That’s good news for the junior Liberal Democrats whose leftist voters were critical of its support for an austerity program.

As Britain draws closer to the next general election, due in 2015, minute cracks will likely appear in the coalition, however. Debates more friendly to the Conservatives will take place, about European Union membership, whether to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights and about immigration.

Both parties have started talking about “red lines” that they will not cross in another coalition. For the Conservatives, these include demanding a rejection of the “mansion tax” on expensive homes and a pledge to retain the Trident nuclear deterrent. The Liberal Democrats’ demands run counter to both proposals. In their 2015 manifesto, they are expected to suggest that two of the nuclear submarines are mothballed to save costs.

That the parties are nevertheless thinking of continuing the coalition is partly because the Conservatives recognize that they will struggle to gain a majority of their own. General elections favor Labour. Its vote is distributed more evenly across the country. While the Conservatives stack up support in seats they already hold, Labour spreads its vote more efficiently. Alongside this is the fact that the Conservatives still lack friends in the north. In 2010, they won just a quarter of the seats in North East and North West England, Humberside and Yorkshire, thirteen of which are now vulnerable.

Another reason is that memories of former Conservative prime minister John Major’s minority government are still fresh. He was left at the mercy of the Euroskeptics and rightwingers in his party and eventually fell. David Cameron does not want the same to happen to him, even if many Conservatives might rather have a minority government again than a coalition.

Liberals may be even less enthusiastic to stay in the coalition. A survey conducted by the Liberal Democrat Voice website found 55 percent favoring a coalition with Labour instead. Just 13 percent backed a continuation of the current government.

Those numbers may change as the economy improves and the Liberal Democrats may not have much of a choice unless one of the two major parties is able to form a majority government. An alliance with Labour could force them to reverse many of the economic and welfare policies they pursued in coalition with the Conservatives while David Cameron will be eager to compromise in 2015 to stay in power.

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