Nick Clegg

As the European elephant in the cabinet room finally rears and strains the Clegg-Cameron bonds, many Liberal Democrats are once again questioning why they are in government at all. And the response is the same as ever:

“We had to go into coalition” they are told “because if we didn’t, the Tories would get to govern alone. Imagine what they would have done”. Or words to that effect. Essentially, the argument goes, they are there to soften the Conservative blow.

In order to understand why this is nonsense, we don’t need to look very far. The SNP were a minority government in Scotland from 2007 to 2011. Here, roughly, is how it played out.

Alex Salmond’s manifesto had various big policy items they had committed to deliver over the course of their four years – replacing council tax with a 3% income tax, an independence referendum, and scrapping student fees, for example. They also had to pass one budget a year, wanted to get through hundreds of smaller policy proposals which required parliamentary votes and to have the ministerial posts which allow you to make day to day decisions about how things are implemented.

Greens, Lib Dems, and Tories all agreed that they would negotiate with the SNP on a case by case basis. Labour agreed to spend four years complaining that no one else was right wing enough (though to be fair, even Labour ended up going back on their word and engaging occasionally).

On the big ticket pieces of legislation those for which there was a majority – scrapping fees, for example – passed. Those for which there wasn’t – replacing council tax and an independence referendum – didn’t.

On the smaller items, people negotiated. They came to compromises with which a majority was content – not because they were fluffy and nice to each other, but because they were hard nosed and knew they had to go to the Scottish people in 2011 and say what they had done.

On budgets – the one thing (other than a vote of confidence) that a government needs to be able to pass in order to govern, again people negotiated. This process was complex, and sometimes went down to, or even beyond, the wire. But ultimately, in each of the four years of minority government, compromises were found. The government remained in tact.

Within the context of the policies and budgets agreed by Parliament, government ministers got to decide how things happen. Some of these decisions were controversial – the release of Megrahi. Others less so.

The overall result was that the SNP got all of the ministerial posts. They had more control over how decisions were implemented than they would have had there been a coalition. But in exchange, they got less say over legislation – they didn’t have coalition partners they could tie into votes. They couldn’t get many of the measures they wanted – local income tax, an independence referendum, etc, passed. When applying the analogy to Westminster, we can substitute for the SNPs priorities those of the Tories. Ending the NHS and trebling tuition fees are policies for which there was only a parliamentary majority because of the Lib Dem deal – policies most MPs opposed. In other words, without Lib Dems in coalition, these things couldn’t have happened, just as an independence referendum and local income tax didn’t happen in Scotland.

Short of this model of minority government, where there is no formal deal, is the ‘confidence and supply’ model which has been used most famously in New Zealand. Under this arrangement, Lib Dems would have got no jobs in government. Instead they would have committed only to supporting, in exchange for certain measures, Conservative budgets and to voting with the government in votes of confidence. Again, this would have left the Lib Dems free to vote against fees and against the ‘end of the NHS’ Health and Social Care Bill, whilst providing the stability which some argue the bond markets would have required…

Going into government isn’t the only way to use the influence you have when you hold the balance of power. And it often isn’t the best way. If you, and the majority of MPs, fundementally oppose many core government policies, then there is no point getting more say over how they are implemented if that means you have to allow them to pass where they otherwise wouldn’t have.

The one argument that the Lib Dems had that they were ‘softening the blow’ relied on the idea that they have significant influence in government beyond the departments they run. Surely this notion has now, with Nick Clegg ‘locked in his flat’ during the Europe negotiations, lost all credibility?

And this isn’t all academic. Minority government is both viable and perfectly common outside Westminster – with recent examples in not only Scotland and New Zealand, but also Wales and Canada. For those who say that there is no way that it would ‘be allowed’ in the current climate, the Netherlands currently has a minority government and so does Denmark.

And what this all means is two things.

First, Lib Dems being in Government may somewhat modify how policies are implemented. But to remain there, their MPs are forced to vote through the most radical Parliamentary programme in decades. Without their place in coalition, they could prevent much of this programme much more effectively than they can with control of a couple of departments.

Secondly, it also means this: if the Lib Dems do choose to leave government (I suspect they won’t) then there is no automatic need for a new election. If they so wish – particularly if they think they would lose an election, the Conservatives could go into minority government. There is no particular reason to believe that they wouldn’t ride it out until 2015 unless Labour and Lib Dems both wanted to go to the polls sooner. They just wouldn’t be able to do as much of the damage that the Lib Dems acceptance of ministerial cars has allowed them to inflict. If the Lib Dems cared about the NHS and about higher education, they could have left government to save them. They chose not to.

Image credit: Nick Clegg – Creative Commons