A new phase for the coalition
The shelving of both Lords reform and the boundary changes marks a new phase for the coalition.
Stage one was a meeting of minds, with liberal Tories joining together with economic liberals in the Lib Dems to reduce the deficit and reform public services. Cameron and Clegg were right when they said the coalition agreement was a Radical document and I think they were also sincere when they said they thought it combined the best ideas from each manifesto.
Stage two was the coalition held together by personal relationships. Disagreements emerged, as events began to tease out the inevitable disagreements over issues like family life or European policy, but the people at the top got on and trusted one another.
Stage three was the contractual phase, where everything came down to the coalition agreement. The mission was not quite so clear and the relationships had been damaged by episodes like the AV campaign, which became more personal than either side had anticipated. But both sides knew they had a deal to stick to.
Stage four starts now: ad hoc negotiation. Even those things that were in the coalition agreement are no longer sacrosanct. Lords reform was not promised in the coalition document (a vote on it was), but it generated enough ill-feeling for the Lib Dems to kill off a reforms they had signed up to and Nick Clegg had backed publicly.
Politically, it feels like a line has been crossed. Now the coalition agreement is up for grabs, how much legislation can the government hope to get through between now and the next election?
Beyond that, it reminds me of Avner Offer’s critique of contacts and their ambiguities. He writes:
‘Contracts aspire to lock in the future, but the future is elusive. Law suggests that contracts are indeterminate, economics that they are incomplete, psychology that agents are short-sighted…’
‘Agreements are ambiguous, contain implied terms, and are open to dispute.’
Offer was writing about risk and financial markets but I think his analysis applies here. A contract – the coalition agreement – was never going to be enough on its own. It would have to be underpinned by something else to avoid ambiguities, omissions and events from gradually pulling the threads of the coalition apart. The agreement had to be supplemented either by a shared mission (phase one) or strong enough relationships for new compromises to be struck along the way (phase two). But it couldn’t survive without at least one of the two; when these both dissipated something was always going to have to give. It just has.