Despite being a coalition, the tensions have not been between the two parties in coalition; rather, they have been along shifting lines that cut-across parties. On welfare, for example, it was IDS, backed up by Nick Clegg and Oliver Letwin, arguing against George Osborne for sufficient funding to make radical welfare reform a genuine reform rather than a glorified word for cuts. On Trident, Osborne and Clegg have been on the same side, with Fox arguing the contrary case. On immigration, it has been Vince Cable and David Willetts making the liberal case.
What to make of these cross-party fault lines? From a narrow short-term perspective, it is a good sign for the coalition’s likely longevity. There have been significant debates within the coalition which are Liberal Democrat versus Conservative, particularly over European measures, and were Conservative versus Liberal Democrat to be the common script for all the big debates in the coalition there would be good reason to doubt how long it will last. That has not been the case, strengthening the likelihood the coalition will last the full five years.
There is also perhaps a broader point here about the often sterile nature of political debate in Britain.
Being in coalition has freed up both Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers to admit when they agree with people in the other party and disagree with those in their own, even if often only in the semi-privacy of Whitehall debates. Without coalition it is hard to envisage nearly as much cross-party agreement being expressed – because that’s not the way politics in Britain is usually done.
Having people take stances on issues on their merits rather than using political party labels as a crude ‘I love/hate that idea’ shortcut regardless of its content is good for getting better decisions and good for having a more grown-up form of politics which doesn’t put off so many members of the public.