East meets Westminster: Tough times for the Coalition but Sir Bob is safe

COALITION politics is proving tricky, writes Richard Porritt.

COALITION politics is proving tricky.

The signs have been undeniable for some time and now the spats, bickering and rows have escalated to full-blown and very public arguments.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s reaction to David Cameron’s decision to scrap Lords reform was predictable and yet it still feels like a watershed moment.

The wheels have well and truly fallen off this marriage of convenience. And no-one is emerging from it happy - both party’s pet projects (Lords reform and boundary changes) are now set to vanish.

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And as with any divorce – because it will end that way, even Nick Clegg himself told this column he would consider siding with Labour at the next election – it is those caught in the middle that suffer the most.

For many Suffolk and Essex Conservative MPs coalition is all they have known. And many have spent the past two and a half years defending it, at least in public.

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And you can bet those same MPs are dreading the awkward doorstep questions between now and the next election: “What exactly has the coalition achieved?” Of course the easy retort should be: “Not as much as we would have done if the public had voted for us in larger numbers in 2010 – so vote for us this time.”

But it is not as easy as that. The general public just want those in charge to get on with it, act like adults and compromise if necessary for the good of the country. In many respects that is what both Liberal Democrats and Tories have done but the ugly squabbles will lodge in the memory of many – and there will be more. There has rarely been a cabinet with such a broad-range of political views. Usually, in public at least, cabinets stick together – in fact it is something of a requirement of the position. This one is an exception it appears.

But for some MPs the coalition’s crisis is water off a duck’s back.

Colchester’s Sir Bob Russell has been in an elected role for more than 40 years. Speaking to East meets Westminster Mr Clegg called him a “force of nature”. No-one could ever accuse him of dodging constituency work and it is this attention to his patch that he believes shields him for the national party’s woes.

“There are people who do not like the coalition – but I have found they are generally Labour supporters or right-wing Tories,” he said. “More moderate people seem to understand and some are even in favour of it in principle.

“When you have an established MP like I am I think there are different elements in play. My priorities have always been to the nation and to my constituents and I think because people know that about me they are willing to trust me.

“Lib Dems like Simon Hughes, Norman Lamb and Don Foster are in similar positions. We worked hard to build up local support and that is vital. People often say to me that they are voting for me and what I have done in the area above actually voting for the party I am a member of.”

Sir Bob is sympathetic to Mr Cameron who he believes is being cornered by an uncooperative Labour party – who are putting attacking the coalition ahead of the national interest – and right-wing elements from within his own ranks.

“Ours is not the only coalition at present – there is an unholy coalition of right-wing Tory head bangers and Labour,” he said. “Between them they have forced the Government into a tricky spot.

“But the possibility of another coalition after the next election remains a very real one in my opinion. David Cameron does not want to creep just over the line and then have the kind of tiny majority that leaves him a hostage to the mavericks within his party – of which several have seats in this part fo the world.

“Personally I do not believe there will be an outright winner next time around.”

Sir Bob is definitely not as exposed to the spluttering Government as many. As a Lib Dem he quite rightly focussed on his constituency in a bid to build up a loyal following. This is an approach employed equally well by Simon Hughes in Bermondsey and Old Southwark. Back when he won the seat against Labour candidate Peter Tatchell – now more famous as a human rights activist – there was every suggestion it would quickly swing back to Labour. Mr Hughes has employed the same rigorous attention to detail when it comes to his constituents as Sir Bob - and now in times of trouble it is paying off.

Sir Bob supported the Coalition and continues to do so – but really the success or failure of the Lib Dems is unlikely to impact on his standing.

There is a clearer air about the Lib Dems in the days since Nick Clegg announced they would block a boundary review after the Tories failed to deliver Lords reform. Unlike Sir Bob, Mr Clegg could well lose his role as party leader over the coalition fall-out. But no-one would bet against the Lib Dem leader in 2015 – whoever it may be – making the same decision to share power again.

Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt

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