Opinion

The Great Debate

Britain’s Liberals flex their muscles, a little

By Nicholas Wapshott
June 13, 2012

Every marriage goes through its bumpy patches. Just ask British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democratic coalition partner, Nick Clegg. They have just gone through the most serious spat since they cobbled together their civil union two years ago, when British voters removed Gordon Brown’s Labour government but didn’t give the Tories a clear mandate. The coalition is a marriage of convenience, a dynastic coupling where neither side is under any illusion that love or affection is involved.

The pretext for the current very public disagreement was a Labour motion in the House of Commons demanding an investigation into whether the minister responsible for deciding whether Rupert Murdoch could buy the 58 percent of broadcaster Sky he does not already own broke the government’s own strict code of conduct. Jeremy Hunt, the man at the center of the fight, has been shown to have made up his mind in favor before being given the job of impartially adjudicating and to have been ultra-cozy with the Murdochs, sending Rupert’s son James a high-five text suggesting that the deal was a fait-accompli. The Murdochs admit bombarding Hunt with no fewer than 788 exculpatory emails. Despite this, Cameron saw no problem with Hunt’s lack of objectivity, and Hunt has defied endless Labour calls to resign.

Clegg, who before the coalition was not deemed important enough to warrant even a Christmas card from Murdoch, spotted an opportunity. With the British public furious at how Murdoch has made a mockery of democracy by bullying and buying his way to business success, he declined to support the Labour motion. The Lib lawmakers were told not to back Cameron and Hunt. The Tories won the Commons vote anyway, as they have a few more lawmakers than Labour.

So, what was the point of Clegg’s rare display of independence? He is highly aware the Libs have suffered from putting the Tories in power. If Cameron succeeds in turning the British economy round within the next three years, Brits may well reward his party with a working majority. If the economy, which coalition policies have driven into a double-dip recession, fails to recover, the Libs will be blamed for aiding and abetting a painful experiment in austerity. At the general election in May 2010, the Libs won 23 percent of the vote. Since then their support, according to every opinion poll, has been cut in half. If an election were called tomorrow, they would suffer a profound collapse.

They need, therefore, to show voters they are not closet Conservatives by flexing the few muscles they have. It is a forlorn gambit. Everyone knows what they are up to, and few give them credit for distancing themselves from the government they are keeping in office. As Cameron put it: “To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they didn’t have that relationship [with Murdoch that the Tories did] and their abstention tonight is to make that point. And I understand that. It’s politics.”

There are real differences between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Many Tories are opposed to further European integration, including joining the euro; the Libs are generally in favor of a European superstate and the single currency. Tories tend to favor the free market and big business; Libs like regulation and safeguards for the underdog. Many Liberal supporters are more left-wing than even Labour supporters. It was part of Clegg’s Faustian pact that the Liberals would enjoy a taste of power that, he hoped, would help them be taken more seriously as a government-in-waiting and less an impotent protest movement.

The question remains: What’s in it for the Libs to keep Cameron in Downing Street? The British first-past-the-post voting system gives the two largest parties an enormous advantage, so part of the price Clegg put on making Cameron prime minister was a referendum on whether to shift to a fairer system. That went badly for the Liberals, with two-thirds favoring the traditional winner-takes-all ballot.

So Clegg has to pick his fights to try to seem a man on the point of divorce from a partner he no longer trusts. As for Hunt, the longer he remains in his post, the more Cameron is tainted by the curse of Murdoch, and the more Labour likes it. As Cameron would say: “I understand that. It’s politics.”

PHOTO: Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (L) listens as British Prime Minister David Cameron answers a question from the public at CNH Tractors in Basildon, southeast England, May 8, 2012. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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