You might have missed it, but some say the Coalition could be cracking. At the weekend, Lord Oakeshott, a Liberal Democrat peer, warned that, unless the government sticks to its pledge of making the House of Lords a wholly elected chamber, Liberal MPs would vote down its plans to reduce the amount of parliamentary constituencies.
On the face of it, this exchange seems so deeply submerged in the Westminster Village fishpond as to be unworthy of remark. Neither Lords reform nor parliamentary boundary reviews are of much interest to the public. And yet both issues are close to the hearts of the two coalition partners – Lords reform is totemic for Liberals, who see themselves as standard-bearers of democracy. And Conservatives know that the chance of their winning an outright majority on the existing boundaries is slim. Unless Labour’s support – which has been remarkably solid for the first two years of the parliament – crumbles for some unforeseen reason, that party’s more efficient distribution of its votes in the first-past-the-post system means the existing boundaries are massively skewed in its favour.
So the safe passage of the bill to redraw the boundaries is, for the Tories, imperative.
What may have alerted many political watchers to the apparent fragility of are the words of Mike Smithson, the ultra-sharp proprietor of the blog Political Betting – as good a resource for politics buffs as it is for gamblers. Smithson, a die-hard Liberal Democrat supporter, saw Oakeshott’s salvo as the first sign that the Coalition might not last the distance. Previously the betting guru had been sure the pact would stand the test of time.
But I’m going to take a punt of my own here – I don’t think the Coalition will fall, at least not now, and not over this. I do think the Liberals could carry out their threat to vote down the boundary changes if the Conservatives welch on the Lords proposal. But that won’t be enough to bring down the government.
Why not? Because the Liberal Democrats have no incentive to force a snap election. In fact, they have a strong disincentive not to. When the party went into a pact with the Conservatives its support collapsed, and has never recovered. Were the Liberals to trigger an election now, it is likely they would be routed. People act on incentives. Those whose role in life it is to gain and retain power are unlikely to act in a manner that could see any power they do have swept away.
That is not to say I think the Coalition is safe until the scheduled election date of 7 May 2015. By 2014, if the Liberals’ polling position hasn’t changed, and the Conservatives have faded slightly, the third party may be in a position where they feel they have nothing left to lose – and may even win a slight electoral dividend by bringing down an unpopular government before time. There’s lots of ifs and mights in that paragraph.
For now the Coalition is safe, I think, because people act on incentives. And the best incentive the Liberals currently have is the chance to avoid the electorate.