After the 2010 Westminster Election resulted in a hung parliament, the Conservative Party entered a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives won 307 seats and were 19 short of a majority, and the 57 Lib Dem seats would be enough to ‘carry the government’ into a majority.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government provides ample evidence of the problems such a government may face. At the formation stage there is the issue of marrying policies that may be very different and the question of the allocation of ministerial posts. Many have considered that the Lib Dem’s biggest mistake was insisting on having a Minister in every department in government. They wanted to demonstrate to the public their ability to govern. However, it also reduced their ability to remain aloof from major controversial policy areas and seemed a tactical error. Coalitions also face the issue of possible policy differences that might arise in response to developments or crises.
The Lib Dem have seemingly committed political suicide by entering into coalition with the Conservatives. Many in the party felt betrayed and so did voters. A major problem was tuition fees. It had to help deal with the worst financial crisis in generations. As part of this it had to raise tuition fees (against their election manifesto). They also helped draft austerity measures and welfare reform, leading many to argue that they sacrificed their own party identity by going into coalition.
There are still ‘agreements to differ’ between coalition partners, but they do not apply to specific cabinet decisions. For example, some Lib Dem members do not support increasing nuclear power but still have to support cabinet decisions to build new power stations. The rules of collective responsibility are weaker but still exist. In 2012 there were disagreements on how to tax the very rich. Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable wanted a mansion tax and his leader Clegg wanted a tycoon tax (all wealthy people must pay a minimum of 20% tax). The Conservatives were reluctant to increase taxes at all. In the end the March 2012 budget was a compromise. The top rate of tax was reduced to 45% but measures were put in place to reduce tax avoidance amongst the wealthy. The Stamp Duty (a tax on property) was increased to 7% on homes above £2 million. All members of the coalition had to defend these changes, even though they disagreed privately.
There have been serious breaches of the Ministerial code. Ministers like Vince Cable have been caught by reporters openly criticising government. He managed to get away with it due to his prominence in the Lib Dem party but this infuriated Conservative backbenchers. Having two sets of backbenchers who may be rebellious present yet another problem.
The preservation of distinctive party identities and the contesting of by-elections are another two areas of difficulty. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems faced challenges during by-elections. The Conservatives were facing a new challenge from the rise of UKIP, whereas the Lib Dems did badly all round, especially in the Newark by-elections. In this case, Independent candidates and the Green Party got more votes than them – they only managed to beat the Monster Raving Loony Party. The by-election results demonstrate that the coalition damaged the Lib Dem’s reputation irreparably.
Specific policy differences have emerged over Europe, the Human Rights Act, Bank reform, NHS reform and other areas. For example, when it comes to the Human Rights Act the Lib Dems are more in favour of individual rights. They pushed for a new Freedom Bill as they feel the Human Rights Act does not go far enough, in contrast the Conservatives believe that the act should be repealed without replacement (this was part of their 2015 manifesto).
The biggest sticking point in the coalition was the AV referendum. The only reason why the referendum happened was because it was a desire of the Lib Dems when the joined the coalition and was agreed by Cameron as a trade-off. During the campaign they actively campaigned against each other, as Cameron was backing a no vote.
To conclude, in 2012, only one voter in six believed the government would survive until the 2015 election, amid regular “coalition at war” headlines and the collapse of the government’s constitutional reform programme. However, despite its faults, the coalition managed to last until the 2015 general election.