Strange bedfellows

Published : Jun 04, 2010 00:00 IST

in London

HAS Britain's time-tested and famously solid two-party system finally had its day? This is the question being asked as Britons start to learn to live with the country's first post-War coalition government, a result of an indecisive verdict in the May 6 general election. It was the first time in more than 30 years that Britain's usually risk-averse electorate voted for a hung Parliament by rejecting both Labour and the Tories in a collective show of no-confidence in Westminster politics, leaving the Liberal Democrats and a clutch of regional parties holding the balance of power.

The verdict plunged Britain into political uncertainty of a kind it had not seen before in recent times and sparked a bidding war between Labour and the Tories as they tried to woo the Liberal Democrats, who, with 57 seats, emerged as kingmakers.

After nearly a week of tumult, marked by unprecedented media frenzy and reports of back-room deals, the auction for the Liberal Democrats' support was finally won by the Tories. But just by a whisker. The deal was nearly derailed when, in a last-ditch effort to hang on to power, Labour agreed to dump Gordon Brown to overcome Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's reluctance to deal with him.

In a dramatic move Brown announced that he would be stepping down as Labour leader to clear the way for formal talks with the Liberal Democrats. The Tories, taken by surprise, responded in panic by improving their offer to the Liberal Democrats though, as it turned out, they need not have because the Labour-Liberal Democrat talks never really got off the ground.

Within hours of the collapse of the Labour-Liberal Democrat negotiations, Brown announced his resignation both as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, paving the way for Tory leader David Cameron to form a new government in alliance with Clegg. Thus ended the 13-year Labour rule; and while Cameron, as Prime Minister, and Clegg, as Deputy Prime Minister, got down to the business of running the country, the Labour Party started its search for a new leader.

It was the culmination of the most closely contested and unpredictable elections since 1992, when the incumbent Tories returned to power in a nail-biting finish after they had been virtually written off. This time, it was Labour that was hoping for a miracle. In the event, however, it suffered a heavy defeat, with some of its leading figures, including two former Home Secretaries, Charles Clarke and Jacqui Smith, falling by the wayside.

For the Tories, too, the results were disappointing. Despite gaining 97 more seats than they had in the outgoing Parliament, they failed to get an outright majority, leaving them at the mercy of the Liberal Democrats, whom they had tended to treat with contempt. Many will find it odd that the centre-left Liberal Democrats should have agreed to get into bed with the right-wing Tories rather than the more like-minded Labour. But Clegg had always maintained that his party would support whoever got the more votes, even if it was not the single largest party in terms of seats.

It so happened that the Tories won more votes as well as more seats than Labour, making Clegg's task easy. He promptly declared that it was in the national interest to back the Tories. Labour, he argued, had been rejected by the people, who had voted for change, a new kind of politics. Cameron lost no time in announcing what he described as a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats, claiming that, despite differences on several issues such as immigration, electoral reforms and Europe, the two had a common position on a number of others, including fairer taxation, the environment and school reforms.

I want to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats. I want us to work together in tackling our country's big and urgent problems the debt crisis, our deep social problems and our broken political system, he said even as the results were coming out.

The rest is history.Compromises & resentment

The agreement, which ultimately formed the basis for power-sharing, represents the compromises made by both sides. The Tories dropped their proposal to raise the threshold of inheritance tax, which would have helped mostly wealthy families and was strongly opposed by the Liberal Democrats. More importantly, Cameron agreed to a referendum on voting reforms, a key Liberal Democrat demand, and a fixed five-year term for the coalition to allay Clegg's fears over its stability. The Liberal Democrats, on their part, abandoned their plans for an amnesty for illegal immigrants and a mansion tax on large properties.

At their first joint press conference after forming the government, the leaders of the two parties pledged to give the country a historic new direction. Their alliance, they said, was based on three key principles: freedom, fairness and responsibility.

We have a shared agenda and a shared resolve, Cameron said, describing the coalition as a historic and seismic shift in the country's political landscape.

Clegg pointed out that the fact that erstwhile political rivals were now comrades showed the scale of change that had taken place.

But even as the leadership put up a show of unity, at the grass roots in both parties there is widespread resentment over the alliance. The Tories are unhappy that as many as five Cabinet posts have been given to the Liberal Democrats and that in a desperate bid to become Prime Minister Cameron has sacrificed some key manifesto pledges. Liberal Democrat supporters and activists have accused Clegg of selling out to the Tories amid fears that the party may have to pay a heavy price for the alliance. Labour claims that an exodus from the Liberal Democrats has already started.

U.S.-style debates

No discussion of the 2010 elections would be complete without a mention of Britain's experiment with United States-style televised leaders' debates.

For years, British politicians had derided such debates as a vulgar American import that the mother of parliamentary democracy could well do without. They thought it smacked too much of presidential-style electioneering, with its stress on razzmatazz rather than substance. Even Tony Blair, starry-eyed about anything American, was against it.

There was also the fear of venturing into uncharted territory, which was fuelled by scare stories about how even the most sure-footed politician could blow his/her chances in an unguarded moment of madness in front of TV cameras. George H.W. Bush's defeat in the 1992 elections is memorably attributed to just such a moment when he was caught looking at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton, a gesture that was taken as a sign of his indifference to voters.

Yet, once the debates were a runaway success, they were credited with transforming and electrifying the election campaign. Their main beneficiary was Clegg, until then a relatively unknown figure. Relishing the role of the plucky outsider, he was able to label his more senior rivals Brown and Cameron (and by extension Labour and the Tories) as the two sides of the same old establishment with nothing new to offer while portraying himself and his party as the change Britain needed.

Clegg's dramatic victory turned him into a political star overnight, sparking a wave of Cleggmania while his party's rating soared.

Has the whole world turned yellow? a Tory candidate reportedly wondered, alluding to the Liberal Democrats' party colour after the post-debate polls.

Collapse of Liberal Democrats

In the end, though, the party failed to sustain the momentum and ended up with fewer seats than it won last time. In fact, the virtual collapse of the Liberal Democrats' support is the most intriguing story of the British elections, one that has gone almost unnoticed in the drama over the hung Parliament.

Were it not for a hung Parliament, Clegg might have struggled to keep his job. He has been forced to acknowledge the party's pathetic performance but sought to blame it on the current first-past-the-post system, saying that even though more people voted for us than ever before, even though we had a higher proportion of the vote than ever before... we have returned to Parliament with fewer MPs than ever before. Of course, not everyone is buying his line, and there have been calls for an inquest into the party's performance.

Twitter election

A word about the campaign style: it was billed as Britain's first Twitter election, inspired by Barack Obama's innovative and successful Internet presidential campaign. Both Labour and the Tories brought in high-profile American experts to advise them, but ultimately, the so-called webification of British elections never really happened and the campaign remained mostly rooted in old-fashioned doorstep canvassing. Newspapers and television not just held their ground against the new media but dominated the campaign.

So, what next? There is speculation as to how long the coalition will last given the ideological differences between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. Commentators say that Cameron and Clegg have their work cut out for them and will need all their skills to keep the show going.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment