Critics of the coalition have not been slow in coming forward since last week’s local election results. Angry Conservatives have blamed their party’s poor showing on the absence of right-wing policies.
Too much has been conceded to their Liberal Democrat partners in government, the argument runs. The coalition is too in thrall to metropolitan issues such as gay marriage and Lords reform. Far from helping to connect with an austerity-hit public, these simply serve to alienate. What is needed is for prime minister David Cameron to reconnect with his “inner Tory”.
It is a point of view most vocally espoused by the Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries. According to Ms Dorries, the prime minister and his chancellor, George Osborne, are poshly out of touch and being roundly punished for it.
There are several problems with this analysis. First, it overstates the depth of the government’s mid-term malaise. While painful, Conservative losses were not disastrous, and there was, of course, the morale-boosting (if sui generis) London mayoral victory. The low turnout suggests a protest vote marked by widespread Tory abstentionism.
The second is that it ignores the reality of coalition government. This involves give and take between the governing parties. After heavy Lib Dem losses last week, some Conservatives perhaps consider their partners to be so weakened that they might accept a more right-wing agenda than trigger a premature election. More likely this would break the coalition. It is hard to see how such an outcome would help the country – or the Tories.
When the coalition came together two years ago it was largely welcomed by the public as offering the best solution to the crisis facing the country. Since then, it has achieved a great deal, pressing ahead with fiscal consolidation and initiating sweeping reforms of education and the welfare system.
But as the measures contained in the coalition agreement have been ticked off, political momentum has leaked away. There is less talk of “governing together in the national interest” and more of a sense of each party pushing its own policy ideas and hobby-horses. The challenge – for both Tories and Lib Dems – is not to retreat to the core but to recover that sense of mission, embedding policies in an overarching strategy for national recovery. This is a challenge of leadership. But if the coalition is to endure, it is one to which Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, must rise.