Let us suppose that after the election, the Tories will be the largest party in the Commons but without an overall majority. David Cameron, as the incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the largest party, will try to form another government. Whatever may be said of Cameron as Prime Minister, he is an extremely canny and successful political operator. The problem that will confront him will be much the same as last time round, and last time round his solution worked brilliantly. By forming a coalition with the Lib-Dems, he gave himself and his friends a secure five years in office and he destroyed, perhaps finally, one of the two opposition parties.
He is likely to attempt the same manoeuvre again. But the Lib-Dems will no longer be there in sufficient numbers to be of any use to him. UKIP? Cameron is terrified of Nigel and even if Nigel agreed to a coalition, he would never agree to Nigel having a place in the cabinet. Besides, Nigel would not agree to a coalition. He would agree to give informal support but only in exchange for an immediate and fair EU referendum.
If he agreed to Nigel’s condition and the referendum result went against continued EU membership, Cameron would be faced with the distasteful task of either withdrawing from the EU, with all the attendant complications, or (more likely) fudging things, delaying and wangling in the usual EU manner. And tired of UK awkwardness, Brussels would probably not make things any easier for him.
Whatever the result of the referendum, the bargain would have reached its term and UKIP support in the Commons would no longer be assured on the same basis. No, UKIP will not look like an attractive partner to David Cameron.
The SNP say now that they would never work with the Tories. Perhaps they would, but only in exchange for immediate Scottish independence or something very much like it.
Who else is there? Well, of course, an excellent partner exists. It’s true, the partner is the traditional enemy. But the Labour party is also now a party of the Establishment. The Labour Party has no more desire to upset the political apple cart than Cameron has. A Con-Lab coalition would be a stable, unchallengeable government, with five years of assured power before it. Ten years isn’t a bad record for a Prime Minister….
In the event of a hung parliament this year, if the Conservatives are the largest party, Cameron will probably choose the Con-Lab option, if only it is possible. The only question is whether or not it will be possible.
It will not be the first time that Labour and Conservative politicians have worked together in coalition. The financial crisis of 1931 resulted in a National Government, headed first by the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, then by Baldwin, then Chamberlain. The National Government started to look more and more like a Conservative government and it was never supported by most of the Labour Party, but it always drew on both National Liberal and National Labour support. It was followed by Churchill’s wartime cabinet, so that Britain had an all-party government of sorts from 1931 to 1945.
Could Cameron carry his party with him? Certainly, not all of it, but probably most of it, enough to make up the Tory share of the necessary overall majority. There will be jobs and opportunities for these who follow the Cameron way, the wilderness for those who do not.
Could Cameron get Labour support at the top – from Miliband or some other leader – and enough of the rank and file to make up the balance of the necessary numbers?
There is not much left of old pre-Blair Labour. Labour has lost its working-class roots and relies now almost entirely on recruitment from the professional political class and the public sector. Most Labour MPs are in it for themselves. Except for a few old-timers nearing retirement and no longer ambitious, most of the Labour party in the Commons might well respond favourably to Cameron’s initiative. They have had five years in the wilderness – enough for any aspiring politician. Given leadership from enough members of their Front Bench – the ones who would be getting places in the Cabinet – they would mostly go along with it.
So if David Cameron has his way, a Con-Lab coalition, may be formed after the election. Have discussions already taken place? Probably. But of course we shall not hear much about them yet.
Why is this prospect so seldom mentioned? Because the coalition idea is likely to arouse serious opposition at the grass roots level in both establishment parties. At that level, both Labour and Conservative support is sustained by mutual antagonism. Conservatives hate organised Labour and Labour supporters hate Tory big business and toffery. A ConLab coalition is the one thing which might destroy or seriously weaken those obstinate tribal loyalties which perpetuate irrational support for the two establishment parties. This would make UKIP’s task much easier in 2020.