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When leaders disagree, let MPs decide

By West Briton  |  Posted: May 15, 2014

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FOR four years the two parties of the coalition have been on (mostly) best behaviour. It's been tough. When working with your mortal enemy it's tough always having to appear polite and agreeable. There's a lot of nose-holding, swallowing hard and biting of tongues. But now the dirty linen is being brought out for a public washing, and you'll all have to get used to this ... for the next 12 months.

This week my Lib Dem colleagues castigated Michael Gove for pilfering £400 million from the mainstream schools' budget to prop up his costly 'free schools' wheeze.

Helston Community College needs about £9 million to rebuild its decrepit C block. But that can't be found because Mr Gove is diverting so much to support his Academies and Free Schools programme. In fact £9 million has been spent creating a new 'Free School' up the road for about 90 pupils – when the 1,600 students at Helston are left with a building which isn't fit for purpose.

Four years ago we went into coalition realising it was the "least worst option". The alternatives were worse. Most of us swallowed hard and offered guarded support. Those who stood to benefit from enhanced status and income attempted to evangelise with a rose-tinted view that the programme represented three quarters of a Liberal Democrat Manifesto for Government.

Though there were merits, there were also pitfalls, including: 1) signing up to abstaining on votes which were crucial to pledges on student fees, totemic commitments on nuclear power and weapons and much else; 2) signing up to too much with an implied acceptance of any policy which purports to deliver a broad theme in the Government's programme; 3) it didn't acknowledge Government is as much the response to 'events' as it is the opportunity to introduce new policy, and; 4) it did not acknowledge that the language used was open to interpretation.

The first lesson of coalition is that the parties should not become only constrained by the apparent detail of a hastily cobbled-together programme. Indeed, coalition Government is the best opportunity to build a stronger role for a more effective Parliament; ie, the chamber of directly elected representatives whose role it is to hold the Government to account.

A coalition Government should, of course, draw up a programme of themes but the past four years have proven what I cautioned my colleagues to accept at the time; that the two parties of Government should leave more to be determined by Parliament rather than through the enforcers in the Whips.

When the leaders of the two coalition parties sat respectfully beside each other as they made mutually contradictory statements to Parliament following the Leveson Inquiry, the Government didn't collapse; the world didn't stop.

When the Government lost the vote on possible military strikes on Syria we didn't end up on a slippery slope to Armageddon. There is nothing which would have undermined the coalition Government had it acknowledged that the parties were free to bring forward options for specific proposals which could not be resolved within the coalition itself.

When the Government rewrote the coalition commitment about the reorganisation of the NHS the two parties should have asked the civil servants to draw up different options for a reconfiguration of health services rather than allowing the matter to be resolved through backroom negotiation and deals followed by enforcement by Whips.

Coalition Government should be easy. Get on with the things you agree on. Seek compromise when you don't. And when you fail to compromise take the proposals to Parliament for MPs to decide.

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