The Prime Minister arrived at the Palace at 7.26pm. The Queen did not detain him for long; the nation gave a collective whoop of joy. It was as if a nightmare had come to an end, a depression had been lifted, a volcanic cloud had been blown away by a fresh breeze. The rainbow over Buckingham Palace symbolised the calm after the storm and, as the Cameron couple arrived in their silver Jaguar, the palpable sense of relief that the Queen's government would be properly carried on obscured the fact that the Conservative leader should by rights have been sent for five days earlier.
Hovering in the wings during the dying days of New Labour was the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell. It was he who choreographed the creation of the coalition government, from the unprecedented decision to postpone the Queen's Speech for three whole weeks, allowing ample breathing space, to the provision of the Cabinet Office for negotiations. Sir Gus and his Civil Service colleagues deliberately kept the Queen out of the picture until it had become inevitable that Cameron would form a coalition with the Lib Dems. Any possibility of a minority Tory government was pre-empted by Brown's baleful presence in Downing Street during that crucial weekend after the election. The fact that Cameron was not yet PM meant that he could not negotiate from a position of strength. Cameron and Clegg both co-operated in the preordained ritual that Sir Gus had, for the first time, set down in writing to regulate the transition of power. Having declared on the Friday morning that his preference was for a coalition, Cameron was then locked into these procedures. Thus Britain had its first taste of the Continental-style coalition formation that the constitutional "experts" have decided should become the norm, once the electoral system has been brought into line with the European consensus. The peculiarities of the British constitution, such as its adversarial principle, are being systematically eliminated, despite the remarkable demonstration during the post-election interregnum of the inevitable consequences of proportional representation.
What, though, of the coalition itself? Unlike most previous Deputy Prime Ministers such as Willie Whitelaw, Michael Heseltine or John Prescott, Clegg will have an effective veto over Cabinet policy. The office is a constitutional innovation of the last (wartime) coalition, when Clement Attlee deputised to enable Winston Churchill to concentrate on the war. In peacetime, Clegg will have less scope for independent action but will also feel less inhibited about intervening whenever he (or his colleagues) decide to dissent from the majority in Cabinet. Based in the Cabinet Office, Clegg only needs to walk down a corridor to see Cameron. He is in almost as close proximity to 10 Downing Street as the Vice-President's office is to the Oval Office in the White House. Moreover, Clegg is explicitly entrusted with the field of political reform, steering legislation through Parliament that will alter the constitution in fundamental ways: fixed five-year terms, a 55 per cent threshold for a vote of no confidence, a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, which tends to entrench the third party permanently in office as an indispensable coalition partner. Cameron's former leadership rival David Davis is leading the campaign against the 55 per cent threshold, with Professor Peter Hennessy and even the former Lib Dem — and Labour transport minister — Lord Adonis denouncing it as unconstitutional. They are right. This is not a constitutional reform but a revolution. The cardinal principle that no Parliament can bind its successor would be circumscribed. The assumption underlying Clegg's project is that coalition governments are in future to become the norm. Over the next five years, Anglo-Saxon constitutional exceptionalism will be whittled away to bring the British body politic into closer conformity with European politics. Across the Atlantic, observers have been taken aback by many aspects of the new dispensation in Britain, as John Bolton reports elsewhere in this issue. After watching the mother of Parliaments reveal herself as the whore of Babylon last year, Americans are now presented with the unsettling spectacle of a political sex change operation: the metamorphosis of Westminster into Brussels.
How well the coalition will function in adversity is still a mystery. In one sense, at least, the partners now share a common destiny: they will sink or swim together. The Liberal Democrats, it must be hoped, are already discovering a taste for power. After 70 years in the wilderness, they will be in no hurry to relinquish the fleshpots of Whitehall. Nor will their supporters, who are savouring the fact that for the first time their votes have actually delivered real political changes in policy and personnel. The coalition Cabinet that has emerged is certainly much more impressive than the Labour one it replaced: a good balance of youth and experience, if not of the sexes. The government will have to be more than the sum of its manifesto commitments. Indeed, it is vital that the programme include more than the thin gruel of across-the-board economies. An austerity programme alone would risk a popular backlash. There is also the danger of losing momentum, especially with a long shopping list of Liberal Democrat election pledges to satisfy before the youthful Treasury team of George Osborne and David Laws can get down to the hard pounding of spending cuts and tax rises. The emergency Budget, on June 22, should be a test of the strength of the Cameron-Clegg alliance. More than that, it will enable the watchful markets to measure just how far their deeds match their words. Like Robin Hood, Clegg and his merry men want to be feared by the rich and loved by the poor, but they must know by now that Labour ran out of other people's money some time ago. Short-term, we should expect onerous taxes on consumption, capital gains, banks and just about anything else that Middle England is wedded to. In due course, however, I expect Osborne to remind his Lib Dem colleagues that it is quite easy to kill the middle-class goose that lays the golden eggs everyone else enjoys.
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