Major Cracks Beginning to Show in UK Coalition Government

Coalition Government
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (L) talks to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on the steps of 10 Downing Street in London May 12, 2010. Cathal McNaughton/ REUTERS

The deepening cracks in the UK's governing coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are becoming more apparent, with Liberal chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander being the most recent MP to speak publicly of the divide between the two parties regarding economic policy.

Alexander wrote in the Telegraph today that "pre-election panic" had led to the Tories issuing "a mix of unfunded tax promises, harsh spending plans, and pandering to Ukip". He also promised that: "The Liberal Democrats would borrow less than Labour, and cut less than the Tories."

Prime minister and Conservative leader David Cameron stoked the argument at the weekend by writing in an email sent to Conservative MPs that the Liberal Democrats were "all over the place, unable to decide whether they want to stick to the plan or veer off it".

The splits within the coalition come after the release of the autumn statement last week, which the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said would see public spending reduced to its lowest level since World War II if followed through. With 149 days left until the general election on 7th May.

Both coalition government and knowledge of the election date in advance are new experiences for politicians in Britain, where until recently one-party governments were the norm and setting the date of the election was the prerogative of the prime minister.

Now, after four and a half years of relatively stable truce, the coalition partners are beginning to tear chunks out of each other in order to differentiate themselves ahead of the election campaign, with the Conservatives attempting to paint the Lib Dems as irresponsible, while they present the Tory spending plans as the work of the 'nasty party'.

Alexander's article follows on from Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg's appearance on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, when he called for the Conservatives to "come clean" about where public spending cuts would fall.

The deputy prime minister said: "I just think the Conservatives are kidding themselves and seeking to kid British voters if they are claiming that it's possible to balance the books, deliver unfunded tax cuts, shrink the state and support public services in the way that everybody wants. It just doesn't add up."

Clegg's comments highlight the divide over economics policy. Whilst the parties agree that the structural deficit should be cleared by 2017/18, the Lib Dem leader has said that "thereafter there are some big differences".

The Conservatives are against a proposed 'mansion tax' on expensive houses, while the Lib Dems support it, and the parties are also in disagreement over continued cuts, which Clegg also commented on.

"I think once we have dealt with the structural deficit, once we have balanced the books, we should provide public services with the money growing in line with the rate of growth of the economy. Under George Osborne's approach it would mean that once we balance the budget in 2017/18, they would want to pare back remorselessly, year in, year out, the state."

The chancellor George Osborne spoke to the Sunday Times to deliver a very public attack on the Lib Dems. He berated the party about their economic policies saying: "It's hard to work out exactly what they (the Lib Dems) think."

"While they sign up to deficit reduction, they want more tax rises rather than spending cuts. But they shouldn't pretend to people that the sums required can be achieved by their homes tax alone," the chancellor continued.

"The battle lines for the general election have been drawn this week. There's a clear choice: a competent plan to stay on course to prosperity with us or a return to economic chaos with all the alternatives."

Luckily, it seems the warring coalition partners will not be forced to cooperate all that much in the run-up to the election. MPs have been told that they are only required in parliament for two and half days a week until the election due to a lack of legislation to pass.

The outcome of the election looks to be the most uncertain in recent British political history, with neither the Conservatives or opposition Labour party able to build a convincing lead in the polls. The rise of anti-EU Ukip and Scottish National Party (SNP) have upset the usual maths of the UK's first past the post electoral system, making a coalition of some sort seem the most likely option.

The latest YouGov poll, published in the Sunday Times had Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck on 32%, the Liberal Democrats on 6%, Ukip with 17% and the Greens on 7%. Being localised to Scotland, the SNP's percentage is smaller, but recent polling found they were likely to sweep Labour from many seats, making them possible coalition partners.