Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Can the government lose?

Okay, I'm working very hard to dampen expectations about tomorrow's vote in parliament. So in that spirit, let's look briefly at why the government could lose, then explain why it won't. So far, the signs are that Labour, and all of the smaller parties, will oppose the rise in fees. It also looks as if twelve Tories, and maybe three others, are ready to either abstain or vote against, or don't know. If all twelve were to vote against the government, then we would need thirteen Liberal rebels to defeat the tuition fees policy. Now, there's a number of Liberals whom we can be fairly sure will oppose the government. Simon Hughes has now said he may be among them, but will "definitely" either abstain or vote against. In one light, it doesn't seem altogether implausible that just over a fifth of Liberal MPs will stick to their pre-election promises, and therefore the prospect of the government being defeated hoves tantalisingly into view.

However. Bear in mind that the number of Tory rebels will not be a dozen. Bear in mind also that any Liberal or Tory who votes against the government is effectively voting against the coalition. Because if the coalition can't agree and pass policies when it has a parliamentary majority, what is the point of it? To defeat the government at this early stage could be to force the issue of ongoing Liberal participation and lead to an early election. And how many Liberals will want to do that, and face the electorate at this miserable nadir? The line from party bosses in both the blue and yellow camps will be to hold the line, wait for the heat to die down, and watch the polls get better. They'll say the economy will turn around in the next five years, people will start to feel wealthier, and the coalition will get the credit for taking the tough decisions. They'll say the vote on AV is on its way, and if AV is passed then coalition politics becomes a permanent reality in Britain - thus potentially making the Liberals kingmakers, even if they are reduced to 10% of the vote. But if the coalition is defeated now, the bosses will say, there will be an election and the wipe-out will not spare the rebels. And I bet you the majority of undecideds in the Liberal camp, all the potential rebels and even abstainers, will be whipped into line by that prospect.

Our job will be to sustain this momentum, prove that there's no magical turnabout waiting if they just hold the line, and ultimately to make them fear us more than they fear the knuckle-crunchers and whip-crackers in the party machines.

By the way, if you haven't already worked this out by now, you should be following me on Twitter on a day like this, for regular pictures and snippets from the day's adventures. I will, of course, try to update the blog.