Where did the 2010 coalition have consensus?
In May 2010, neither the Conservatives nor Labour won a majority in Parliament and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats decided to form the first peacetime Coalition Government in Britain since 1931. The Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister and the party received five Cabinet posts. The two parties negotiated a Coalition Agreement, different from both their manifestos, which set out the policies that they would carry out.
There were a number of areas where the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were in reasonably close agreement in 2010 but other areas where they were in disagreement. The Conservatives gave some concessions to the Liberal Democrats in order to keep them in the Coalition, such as allowing a referendum on a new voting system, even though they disagreed. There were some areas, such as the EU and environmental policy, where the two parties moved further apart during the Coalition as the Conservatives drifted to the right.
- The previous Liberal Democrat leaders, Ashdown and Kennedy, had positioned the party to the centre-left. In 2004, a group of mostly younger Lib Dems , including Nick Clegg and David Laws, published The Orange Book which sought to take the party to the right and bring back traditional Liberal ideas of the free market and individualism. With Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister this meant that , during the Coalition, the two party leaderships agreed on a free market economy and on policies such as the privatisation of Royal Mail and some contracting out of NHS services to the private sector.
- The Orange Book Liberals wanted an emphasis on the individual and the consumer with less intervention by the State and for local communities and the voluntary sector to provide services. This fitted well with Cameron’s idea of the Big Society with more freedom to local communities to take decisions and for local organisations and volunteers to provide services. A number of national public bodies (quangos) were abolished.
- Part of the impetus for the Coalition was the insistence by the Cabinet Secretary, Britain’s top civil servant, that Britain needed a stable Government to deal with the public sector deficit and reassure the financial markets. The Liberal Democrats supported George Osborne’s plan for reducing the deficit even though this meant an increase in VAT and considerable public expenditure cuts. Vince Cable, the Business Minister who had been the Lib Dem economic spokesperson, made clear his unhappiness about some of what was being done but the Lib Dem leadership did not try to change Osborne’s economic policy
- By 2010, the Conservatives had come to accept the devolution settlements that they had originally opposed and were even prepared to see further devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales. The Liberal Democrats had always been a pro-devolution party
- The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed on abandoning some Labour ideas, such as the introduction of identity cards and the time that terrorist suspects were held without charge, from the civil liberties point of view. The Liberal Democrats had been strongly in favour of equality for minorities and part of Cameron’s attempt to modernise the Conservative Party was to support gay marriage and be concerned with ethnic minority issues.
- Cameron’s slogan before the 2010 election, ‘vote blue, go green’ and his pledge that his Coalition would be ‘the greenest Government ever’ seems to signal a much greater concern by the Conservatives for the environment which would match that of the Liberal Democrats. Government statements emphasised the importance of climate change and policies were carried out to support renewable energy, promote home insulation and create a Green Investment Bank.
- Cameron did not appear to be Eurosceptic in the way that Thatcher had been, at the end of her Premiership, and seemed more in control of the Eurosceptics in his party than Major. The Liberal Democrats, always the most pro-European of British political parties did not foresee a serious disagreement over EU relations.