Coalition politics, like war, is at its core about intimacy and enmity — and frequently a large dollop of contempt.

Once in a political blue moon, however, political enemies driven by circumstance recognize that they must reach across to an adversary in order to have even a slim prospect of success. The tough working-class trade union leader Ernest Bevin became a key colleague of Winston Churchill’s during their wartime coalition, though they were never friends. German Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt could not stand many of his Liberal Democratic colleagues but he knew they were essential to his success as chancellor. John Bracken and Arthur Meighen combined Manitoba Progressives with Canadian Conservatives in a marriage that worked less well for their own careers than it did in creating a national governing party a generation later.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron were faced with an exquisite dilemma the morning after election day. Cameron could have tried to govern in Canadian minority style, been defeated over his first tough budget and then faced an election. Clegg could have joined the Labour Party in power, knowing that they would seek to undermine him from day one, and the media and his supporters would have been furious at his propping up a tired government. The briefings that each had received from the savvy British civil service mandarinate were all unrelentingly grim about the need for stability and decisive fiscal measures, within days of the outbreak of the Greek contagion that could quickly jump the Channel. As risky as the coalition decision may be, they had no risk-free choices.

And, in that curious place where personal chemistry and political need combine, the two men and their senior advisers realized that they liked each other, respected each other and had more in common in style and vision than they had realized. From the first discreet meetings between chosen intermediaries late in the campaign, to the final hours of tough bargaining that led to the coalition agreement between the two leaders, everyone involved reported an unusual chemistry, even harmony. Very little of this was obvious to the outside world, however.

Coalition partnerships run in one of two directions very quickly: tight-lipped mutual contempt with only the greater pain of failure as a bond, or a genuine shared commitment sealed by mutual respect and, yes, even intimacy. There are few friendships more intimate than those of political leaders happily joined at the hip in a dangerous shared enterprise.

When journalists gathered in the garden of 10 Downing Street on a sunny spring morning in May to watch the smooth performance of two opposing party leaders, now blowing each other rhetorical kisses, one could forgive a few curled lips and a chorus of skeptical eyebrows. But the more savvy among them realized that this was the real thing, when a line is drawn in front of which everything will be different.

The heavy-breathing tabloid media went into orbit. The less febrile commentators in the “quality dailies,” most of whom were firm Conservative supporters in the campaign, were more careful. Matthew Parris, parliamentary “sketchwriter” for the Times spotted the challenge that the leaders’ decisions meant for their internal enemies. The coalition “was like witnessing a coup,” he remarked, except that it was against the hard-heads in each leader’s own party. Their coalition agreement will shove a cork in the mouths of the anti-Europeans on the Tory right and the anti-business militants on the Liberal left — long a goal of each leader.

For David Cameron, a Disraeli Conservative, a Red Tory, the deal brought the ability to shed the final vestiges of the Thatcher legacy, meaning that the Conservatives were no longer the “nasty party.” This was worth at least five Liberal cabinet seats. Proof that his internal enemies understood exactly what he was about was heard in the bitter snarls from Lord Tebbit, the icon of the dark side of Thatcherism. That Nick Clegg had delivered a fatal blow to his own “beautiful losers” faction was evident from their angry sneers about his “class loyalty” trumping his party leadership responsibility, and only slightly more temperate attacks from former party leader Charles Kennedy.

In that curious place where personal chemistry and political need combine, the two men and their senior advisers realized that they liked each other, respected each other and had more in common in style and vision than they had realized. From the first discreet meetings between chosen intermediaries late in the campaign, to the final hours of tough bargaining that led to the coalition agreement between the two leaders, everyone involved reported an unusual chemistry, even harmony.

Cameron and Clegg are reaching for a deep transformation of British politics. Each leader sees advantage in positioning himself as a centre-left or centre-right champion, attempting to isolate Labour and empowering its loony left. The higher leadership bar they openly admitted to be aiming for is a politics that rewards compromise, one that encourages national interest to genuinely trump narrow partisan interest. Disraeli was famously the “One Nation” Conservative leader, a position echoed by Cameron’s “Big Society” Conservatism. As the Economist observed, it was one of the few ingredients of the Cameron campaign that Nick Clegg studiously avoided criticizing.

When they work, coalition governments are powerful vehicles to deliver big political change. The collective harness provides the political cover to the partners to force painful medicine down voters’ throats. No British voter younger than veterans of wartime rationing will have had to swallow more unpleasant fiscal remedies than this government will now deliver. Labour may try to claim that it would have done it more fairly, more gently or more patiently, but the dirty secret of the UK political class this year was the inevitable fiscal clampdown coming soon after election day. Indeed, the coalition has promised a tough new budget before summer.

The political risks could not be higher. For the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, if they are seen to manage the tightening unfairly, or incompetently, the backlash may destroy the coalition, and not only ensure the end of the two young leaders’ brief careers but probably consign their parties to opposition for another decade or more. Internecine political enmities will mean each man will need to look over his shoulder daily, as he also attempts to stare down Labour and a frequently vicious British political media.

The list of economic losers in this process is long and potentially impossible to manage. Public sector workers, pensioners and the poor will join big business, local government and the defence sector as major victims of belt-tightening. The winners — some entrepreneurs, small business and some parts of the English financial services sector known simply as “the City” — are all prospective only, and they will wisely hesitate to be seen publicly as the government’s allies.

Labour will be led by an impressive new leader — likely to be David Milliband — unblemished by 13 long years of Labour rule; freed of the harness of government, he will be capable of the most outrageous and irresponsible attacks, each guaranteed to win the support of some of the long list of fiscal restraint losers. The horror stories of hospital and school closings and pensioners freezing, uncared for, in facilities struggling with staff cuts will find great media support and fill many a parliamentary question period.

Many pundits point to political reform as the rock on which the coalition will founder. There have been many anguished letters from lifelong Liberals about the sellout. Tory hardheads are already spinning to their more troglodyte supporters about this “referendum nonsense” as “something up with which we shall never put.” The exceedingly well crafted and detailed coalition agreement spells out the government’s commitment to political reform with considerable finesse.

As in Canada, the major parties hate the idea of proportional representation, and the smaller parties lust after it. The real reasons are clear, if rarely admitted by either side. The major parties’ enormous advantage under a first-past-the-post system is an undemocratic advantage that they do not want to part with. In this UK election the Liberal Democrats got nearly one in four votes and fewer than 1 in 10 seats. Or to put it in terms of Labour benefit, a vote from a Labour supporter was nearly three times as valuable in electing an MP as a Liberal’s was. Smaller parties like it because it would not only level the playing field, it would fracture the outcome of elections permanently, giving them greater leverage in postelection governmental bargaining.

So it is not surprising that the power the system confers on the winners is not something that will be easily ceded. Proportional representation fans anywhere in the world who think reform will happen because it is fairer or a good thing should join a good charity and use their free time less foolishly. Change will come, but especially in as conservative a place as the United Kingdom, it will come slowly, in small increments. Launching the debate, creating a process for national consultation and ensuring that the pro-reform argument gets a platform are all important victories.

Many Liberal Democrats are unhappy about the coalition’s commitment merely to a referendum on alternative voting, a half measure that might even be counter-productive to Liberal Democrat ambitions. But they would be wise to use the opportunity it allows to play a big role in the first real national debate in more than a century about the need for reform. It was, ironically, in a curious-cycle-of-history sense, a young British Conservative leader of the 19th century who last used political reform as a battering ram to shatter the hold of some of the tired old barons of his party. Disraeli astonished the nation in 1867 by grabbing the issue of political reform as a weapon to attack both Liberals and his own hard-heads. In a gamble just as high-risk as that taken by the two young reformers today, Disraeli almost doubled the number of qualified voters, betting that many would vote Tory in gratitude. He lost his first bet but returned triumphant six years later.

Cameron has granted Nick Clegg a back-door entrance to 10 Downing Street, literally. He will be able to enter and leave unseen from an adjacent building, 11 Downing Street, for private conversations with the Prime Minister. One can imagine many an intimate late-night meeting, as the two men fight a war abroad and a likely public sector war at home, all while trying to avoid civil war in their own parties.

If they prevail, the impact on all the parliamentary democracies could not be greater. A successful modern coalition, one that delivers big change, and one that each leader survives, will deliver a clear message to parliamentary politicians and their voters in Canada. Political choice is not limited to the arrogance of majority government or the embarrassing pusillanimity of perennial minorities.

Photo: 360b / Shutterstock

Robin V. Sears
Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years.

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