Will the Jeremy Hunt vote unravel the coalition? Dream on

David Cameron

In the end, as Alan Shearer observed during a recent of Match of the Day, the winning football team needs to score more goals than its opponents. Shearer's insight applies in politics too.

The winning side in a House of Commons vote, like today's vote on the Jeremy Hunt affair, is the one that gets the most votes. Labour's attempt to get Hunt's case referred to independent scrutiny failed by 252-290, a government majority of 38. You don't need to be a highly paid pundit to see that this was a government win and a Labour defeat.

Many on the Labour and Tory benches would nevertheless prefer to see the backing for Hunt as a pyrrhic coalition victory, where the immediate result may be secondary to the bitterness it leaves between the divided coalition partners. Several times previously in this parliament, Labour has put down motions which are ostensibly designed to split the coalition and embarrass the Liberal Democrats into breaking with the Conservatives. Today was the first significant occasion on which the tactic worked. By abstaining en masse on Labour's defeated motion, the Lib Dems undoubtedly angered many Tories. But does this undoubtedly significant milestone mark a watershed moment for the coalition? Is the unravelling of the coalition, long predicted by its enemies, about to occur? Dream on.

The first thing which needs to be said about the Lib Dems' tactics today is that they did not have much choice. In theory, yes, Nick Clegg could arguably have led his party into the lobbies with Labour and got away with it. The Lib Dems would undoubtedly have voted for the government if a confidence motion had been called following a Labour win last night. But an outright vote against Hunt would have come close to triggering the coalition civil war which the Daily Mail falsely identified yesterday. The Lib Dems have no interest in igniting a conflict they would lose.

In practice, therefore, the Lib Dems were faced with a choice between voting with the Tories or abstaining. To vote with the Tories, in support of Hunt, would have been both a betrayal of the party's stance, reiterated by Clegg at the Leveson inquiry today, on the Murdoch issue at the heart of the row.

But it would have been ineffectual too, since many of the Lib Dems' 35 backbenchers would have ignored the government whip while not threatening the government's majority. Abstention was therefore by far the smartest option for the Lib Dems, because it registered a clear protest against the Tories' pro-Murdoch strategy and against David Cameron's eager endorsement of the culture secretary's position, while at the same time declining to dance to Labour's tune and preserving both party unity and the coalition.

None of this is to say that the Lib Dem abstention was without significance. But don't get the significance wrong. Neither Labour nor the Tories have such a virtuous record over the Murdoch empire that the Lib Dems are under any moral obligation to support either of them on the issue, no matter how self-righteous they may each now be. The Lib Dems undoubtedly remain committed to the coalition, but they are not the Tory poodles of Labour imagination.

As the redoubtable Professor Philip Cowley has shown, Lib Dem MPs have rebelled against the whips in 24% of all divisions in this parliament. Fully 94% of the party's backbenchers have rebelled against the coalition on at least one issue in the past two years.

The abstention was therefore in line with that culture of Lib Dem pick-and-choose scepticism, rather than a radical break with it. The move hardly threatens the coalition with destruction. The government's majority of 83 is larger than many suppose. And self-proclaimed Tory loyalists in glass houses should not throw stones. The major danger to the government's majority comes from Tory backbench revolts, not from its junior coalition partners.

What was unusual about today was the disciplined independence of the unprecedented Lib Dem abstention. But its significance may be less as a step towards the detaching of the Lib Dems, of which adherents of single-party government dream, and more as another indication that the coalition faces pressing decisions about how to renew itself. And, by coincidence, that is exactly the theme of two thoughtful reports published this week which both draw on continental coalition experience.

As one of these, The Politics of Coalition by Robert Hazell and Ben Yong, of the Constitution Unit, points out, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has gradually slipped from being a government marked by harmony to one characterised by increasing differentiation, especially in parliament. If year three is not to be marked by further partisan démarches and squabbles, and by slipping poll ratings, the government is going to have to grip the political agenda more effectively than it is currently doing.

The second report, with the Sheareresque title A Game of Two Halves, written by Akash Paun for the Institute of Government, is more proactive. It argues for a midterm review and a renewal plan that will carry the parties through to the final year of the parliament, though not for a wholly new coalition programme. Paun wants the coalition to prioritise more, and to copy Sweden's way of differentiating between core coalition policies which are sacrosanct and others which will be open to more debate and differentiation.

Seen in the less febrile contexts provided by these two reports, this vote looks less like a sharp rock that could wreck a coalition than a blow whose shock has to be absorbed without threatening the larger project. The British political class's default setting is still to see coalition as an aberration in a seamless culture of alternating single-party governments. The rest of us might be better advised to assume the old pattern will not recreate itself so easily. Whether you like it or not, there is life in this coalition yet and the smart politician will be the one who grasps that proactive coalition management of the sort advocated in these two studies may in future be the rule, not the exception.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Martin Kettle, for The Guardian on Wednesday 13th June 2012 21.00 Europe/London

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