by Benjamin Judge
The 6th May this year will mark two years since the general election which put the coalition into existence. The Liberal Democrats have up to this point felt the backlash of their partnership. The backtrack of several flagship policies as a result of being the coalition ‘underdogs’, namely the scrapping of university tuition fees, led to wide spread voter distain. The embarrassing rejection of the Alternative Vote on the 5th May last year and the loss of key party icons (Chris Huhne for example) have not exactly helped matters. In addition to the resignation of David Laws after just 6 weeks in office over tax payer’s money he was using to fund his house and the undercover filming of Vince Cable in a London cab, the Liberals have sustained a number of deeply penetrating blows. Indeed, the party have not exactly performed overly well in by-elections, consistently loosing votes. In the recent Bradford West by-election they lost their deposit. And whilst scandals, resignations and election defeats rumble on in the background, many watch the coalition and rightly ask are they actually being included in government? It would appear to many people quite simply, no. The European fiscal pact at Christmas was such an example; Clegg was not consulted over the veto of the treaty. As a result there was a no-show from Clegg at PMQs. The tension which resulted was almost tangible. Therefore It has been reasonable up until this point, to conclude that the Liberal Democrats have been the scape goats – the pawns in a vicious game of coalition chess. They have had limited influence and have been used as a means of counteracting the ‘nasty’ party. All the while, the popular support that they achieved in the spring of 2010 has been eroded.
However, the tides are turning. After almost two years of coalition politics, the Conservatives are now feeling the backlash of their partnership in coalition from both Labour and the public; although, the former have been somewhat flaccid in their attack. This is not to say of course that there has not been a battle between austerity and spending; the accusations that an ideological, Etonian fuelled front bench have maimed the working classes have all too often been hurled at Cameron, Osbourne and company.
In its two years of existence, the coalition has felt outrage, anger and distain but never have the Tories specifically experienced the vociferous opposition as was seen last week. The tax on pasties brought humiliation to the Conservatives specifically rather than the coalition as a whole. A tax on hot pies, Cornish pasties and sausage rolls – simple, easy to understand one may assume. Certainly not. The loophole that Osborne wanted close suddenly became a rabbit warren of intricate exceptions and meaty arguments. Suddenly, Cameron and Osbourne were deemed to be completely out of touch with the ‘working class person on the street’. The attempts at showing that they were in touch resulted in embarrassing stories of purchased pasties in Liverpool Street station, rushed trips to ‘Greggs’ and an inability on Osbourne’s part to answer the inevitable question of when he had last bought a pasty from Greggs. These blunders hardly made matters any better and the inability to brush the issue away cost the Conservatives dearly.
The advice given by Mr Maude was again another example of the readiness of the political system and the public to seize any raw coalition flesh. What was a sensible and perfectly rational comment received a torrent of abuse. The advice to members of the public to ‘top up’ their tanks was surely made for same reason that a weather-man may advice the public to purchase a snow shovel. The strike was looming, the need for sensible precaution was there. Perpetuated by the media however and further stirred up by Labour, the simple comment turned into an immeasurable panic. As with the pasty row, the Conservative felt the onslaught of public and political criticism to the extent where there were calls for Francis Maude to resign.
The £250,000 donor given the offer of dinner with the Prime Minister and for many the next round of austerity that was Osbourne’s budget had of course gone someway to laying the foundations to the fervour that emerged from the pasty and fuel rows. However, one cannot help but notice something deeper set in the attacks made. Of course, tuition fee cuts are worth fighting against – the public have a right to be angry – but do the issues of pasty tax and petrol shortage advice really carry the same gravity? Yes, there were not protests and marches but there was a sense of anger towards the Tories that they have not felt in its purest form so far. I dare say that the election of George Galloway was a freak event based on a single issue, ex-Big Brother television star. Respect is certainly not the political mood of the wider country. But it would be justified at least to take the belief that Galloway’s election represented a vent of frustration. In the context of the week that he was elected, this view point seems somewhat appropriate.
The coalition is not heading for the gallows, but the Tories are feeling a tide of criticism that they have not really experienced before. This is best attributed perhaps to the simplicity of what they ‘attacked’ and reciprocally what the advice they gave out to help people, caused. All the while, the Liberals have made some advances on their influence. The budget exhibited a number of key policies like mansion tax. Almost two years on, the tides have turned – Cameron is instead feeling the burn of the coalition. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats will come out stronger than one might have thought!