Sunday, June 27, 2010

The first cracks in the coalition?

The Liberals, having campaigned on opposition to VAT tax rises, are suffering due to being part of a coalition introducing them. A Telegraph poll has Lib Dem support down 5% to 16% - a tremendous collapse compared to Clegg's pre-election honeymoon, with Labour gaining 4% and the Tories up 2%. Now, it seems that about half of Liberal voters may defect.

If that held true in a general election, I'm guessing that the Liberals would be wiped out in the London and the north-east, and seriously depleted in their south-western strongholds. What the Liberals have done here is to apply a pincer squeeze on their own support. Giving George Osborne a 'progressive' imprimatur enables the Tories to shed their nasty reputation with centrist, and conquer currently Liberal-occupied territory. Passing a budget that openly attacks the public sector, welfare, and introduces regressive taxes - all the while giving in to the Tories in issues such as immigration, nuclear weapons and war - destroys the Liberals' reputation as a slightly progressive alternative to New Labour.

It's early days, but there are already presentiments of a potential meltdown in the Liberal faction of the coalition, with some Liberal MPs expressing unease or threatening rebellion. Simon Hughes has been elected deputy leader of the Liberals the better to coopt and contain people like him, but he has a real problem in that he represents a sizeable chunk of London's working class. And there is a crop of more recent Liberal arrivals who have sprung up in former Labour heartlands, who are at more immediate risk than Hughes. People like Sarah Teather, who exchanged her conscience for a cabinet position (she probably thought it was a bargain), will pay a high price for their loyalism. The party bosses undoubtedly think they need to brazen this out, wait for the immediate shock-waves to pass, and I've made the point before that Liberal voters, while not especially left-wing on economic issues, are largely not Thatcherites. Unlike many Liberal activists, they never supported the Orange Book crowd who took control of the party after the ouster of Charles Kennedy, and were never free market fundamentalists. This is less than a week after the budget was unveiled. Let's see what happens when it really starts to hurt.