Remember that old cigarette slogan? You've come a long way, baby. Something similar must pass through Nick Clegg's mind whenever he looks up from his desk. In early May, his Liberal Democrats had just finished third in the general election and were negotiating with the Conservatives about forming a coalition government. Now, his office is in the building where those negotiations took place. A glance out the window brings views over St James’s Park towards Buckingham Palace. A quick stroll down a corridor delivers him to 10 Downing Street and David Cameron. This is what most observers would call proximity to power.
Two-thirds of Liberal Democrat lawmakers would lose their seats if an election were held tomorrow.
With the coalition entering its hundredth day of service, it’s clear that Clegg and Cameron aren’t just close to each other geographically. To the delight of some in Westminster, and the undoubted chagrin of others, the two men have developed a quick and eager friendship. Text messages and jokes flit incessantly between them, and business is conducted in a relaxed, familiar manner. One Conservative minister told me that they’re akin to “brothers who get on—similar and considerate.” Another has them down simply as “twins.” To civil servants who operated under the internecine Labour government, all this has come as a welcome surprise. “I never thought two politicians could have such a functional relationship,” says one, wryly.
The personal bond has been bolstered by political similarities. Much has already been said about how Cameron led his party leftwards in the aftermath of their 2005 election defeat, but much less about how Clegg dragged his party rightwards. In the two-and-a-half years of his leadership, the Liberal Democrats have increasingly pushed for a smaller state, spending restraint, lower taxes (particularly for the poorest in society), and deep public service reform. By the time the two sides met over sandwiches in May, they had long since met in the middle of the political spectrum. It’s just that neither had quite realized it until that moment.
The result has been a period of whirlwind activity in government. A Conservative minister recently described the coalition’s first few months as more radical than either Thatcher’s or Blair’s. The New York Times and The Economist have echoed that sentiment. And, what’s more, none of them is wrong.
The process began with Chancellor George Osborne’s sweeping “ Emergency Budget” in June. Its mission was to prop up the battered British economy, and repair a budget deficit that now rivals that of Greece as the largest in Europe. It did so by inaugurating the deepest public spending cuts since the Second World War. Government departments now face having their spending reduced by a quarter. Public servants will lose their jobs. Many voters will lose their benefits. Services that we enjoyed during the boom times will be trimmed down or hacked to nothing. The coalition’s opponents argue that this could put our fragile recovery into reverse. But Osborne remains undaunted: “To budge from our plan now would risk reigniting the markets' suspicions that Britain does not have the will to pay her way in the world,” he says. And, so far, the markets are on the Chancellor’s side.
But the radicalism is not just that of a chainsaw. The coalition has been irresistibly creative too. Exhibit A is the education minister Michael Gove’s plan to foster a new generation of schools free from the dictates and bureaucracy of central government—a mix of the American charter schools model and the Friedmanite voucher system used in Sweden. Exhibit B is the latitude given to one of the government’s great crusaders, Iain Duncan Smith, to tackle unemployment and poverty with Clintonesque reforms. Exhibit C is locally elected police chiefs, with New York cited as a prime example of how this can work. From injecting market fundamentals into a state-run health system to lifting low-income earners from the tax system, there are enough examples to fill any evidence locker. Coalition has not forced British politics into deadlock, as many thought it would. It has reinvigorated it, slipping a Viagra into the governmental potion.
But let us not mistake motion for progress. A government’s intentions can be as good and as radical as they come, but the real test is whether they can be put into practice—and, already, ministers like Mr. Gove are discovering just how tricky that can be. He entered office with the most audacious and coherent reform package of all, but soon stumbled into trouble after a series of errors by his department. A list of schools that would no longer benefit from an axed government project was found to contain mistakes. Then a second list contained similar mistakes. Then a third, then a fourth—until the fifth version got it more or less right. In the face of derision and scorn, coalition insiders blamed the bureaucracy they inherited. But, really, the whole episode was a reminder of how reform can swerve when a government has its foot to the throttle.
Inevitably, there have been more missteps. The expenses-related resignation of David Laws—a Liberal Democrat and early favorite of the coalition—caused tremors on the domestic scene. Public disagreements over this spending cut or other have done likewise. But, from this crow’s nest, it is international politics where the government has looked weakest. David Cameron’s pledge to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2015 is uncertain and has drawn fire from military chiefs who fear it could galvanize the Taliban. His freewheeling brand of diplomacy (example: calling Gaza a “prison camp” during an address in Turkey) has been attacked as opportunistic. Back home, a crucial review of Britain’s defense capabilities is proceeding at what one official describes sneeringly as “a leisurely pace.”
And, of course, lurking behind all this is a single festering truth: the nation’s confrontational party system just isn’t geared towards coalition. Cameron and Clegg may overcome this problem, they might even subvert it, but it will be a terrible struggle either way. Both are surrounded by skeptics—broadly speaking, the Liberal Democrat left and the Conservative right—who are worried about what is being conceded to the other side. And that skepticism is bound only to become more vocal, more intense, as the honeymoon period subsides and government becomes a daily slog to implement tough spending cuts and tax hikes. Then there’s the prospect of more organized external opposition once the Labour party elects a new leader in September.
Here, the dangers facing the coalition have already taken a numerical form. In the election, the Liberal Democrats scored 23 percent of the vote. The latest opinion polls have them on 13 percent. This slide is one of the most arresting trends of the past few weeks, and many of Clegg's colleagues will fear it represents a slide into irrelevance. The implication is that two-thirds of Liberal Democrat lawmakers would lose their seats if an election were held tomorrow. And in the British system, where lawmakers also make up the government, that prospect could focus minds all the way up to the party leader's magnificent new office.
But enough pessimism and dread speculation—a birthday should be a happy occasion, and there is much to be happy about. Against the odds, Britain has a government whose radicalism matches its task. We have been among the sick men of Europe before, in the late 1970s, until the new decade demonstrated the country’s awesome capacity for renewal. At the start of this decade, the patient may be quivering into health once again.
Peter Hoskin has been in and around the worlds of politics and journalism since graduating from university in 2006. He currently runs the Spectator's political blog, Coffee House, and writes about cinema, literature and culture as much as he can.