Will Clegg and Cameron’s ‘marriage’ survive?

Has the coalition of convenience between Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and deputy Nick Clegg come to an end?

clegg and cameron
The romantic haze of Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg’s unlikely coalition is over as they continue to disagree on crucial issues [GALLO/GETTY]

London, United Kingdom – A new year in Britain, and one wonders what that will bring for Britain’s most famous “married couple”. No, I’m not talking about Will and Kate, but Dave and Nick – whose rocky and troubled partnership looked like it was heading straight for the divorce courts at numerous times in 2011.

Despite it being evident that the union between Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg was totally doomed from the start, the (then) happy couple still gave it their all, trying to convince Britain this was a match made in heaven, not a marriage of convenience.

Glossing over their very brief courtship (all of three weeks to be precise), May 2010 saw David Cameron and Nick Clegg proudly announce their matrimony. As expected, the beaming couple posed for glossy photos declaring their commitment to each other and to Britain, stating: “Our visions are not compromised by working together; they are strengthened and enhanced.”

And how could anyone forget their (carefully orchestrated) first public outing together? The way they looked at each other, the way they laughed at each other’s cringeworthy jokes, all we kept hearing was “David and I” or “Nick and I” and promises of “great change and real progress” for Britain.

Nick even forgave Dave (or attempted to pretend to in front of the cameras) over his response when asked for his favourite political joke replying: “[Liberal Democrat leader] Nick Clegg, at the moment.”

But it seems Nick was plotting his revenge. He forgave, but he did not forget. According to reports, the prime minister was the “butt of Nick Clegg’s jokes at this year’s Liberal Democrats’ Christmas party”. Now, a cynic would suggest that Clegg mocked Cameron “publicly” because he had a certain amount of credence that his comments would be leaked to the newspapers, thus leaving the prime minister with no uncertainty of his deputy’s feelings towards him.

It seems hell hath no fury like a deputy scorned.

It’s really no surprise though that the relationship has deteriorated to its current state. Two parties stuck with each other, desperately unhappy with the way things are heading, forced to put on a brave face while pretending everything is “just fine”.

Selling their souls?

The reality is, however, that it would have taken an absolute miracle for this “marriage” to have ended up “happily ever after”. Two parties with values, beliefs and manifestos like chalk and cheese. The only thing uniting them was desire and desperation to get into power. And the only way to achieve this would be to do the unthinkable – join together.

David Cameron had one shot to win Britain over at the general election and failed. The Conservatives just weren’t popular enough with the electorate when it really mattered, so resorted to “sleeping with the enemy” to get what they really wanted. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, desperate to get on stage, were the Liberal Democrats. They knew playing the understudy for five long years was their one and only shot to be heard and noticed. It was too tempting to turn down even if did mean selling their souls to get there.

The UK’s coalition challenge

And there it was – in May 2010 – Britain’s first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s. However, with both parties heading in different directions, the road was going to be a long and winding one – with the destination a hazy dot on the misty horizon.

Cracks started to appear over Cameron and Clegg’s stance on the NHS health reforms. Maybe with all the excitement and drama of a new relationship, Clegg got in a bit of a muddle and forgot whether he was or wasn’t in favour of the reforms.

In an interview on the Andrew Marr Show in January 2011, the deputy prime minister asserted “huge” changes to the NHS was indeed part of the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto. Clegg stated: “We certainly said we were going to get rid of Primary Care Trusts. We said we were going to get rid of strategic health authorities.”

Then, just five months later Clegg signed off a policy document rejecting the idea of an NHS competition regulator. This put him in an opposing position to Government Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who David Cameron (unsurprisingly) is a big fan of.

And it didn’t stop there – according to the policy document: “Clegg also criticised Cameron for declaring his love for the NHS while taking advice from people talking up the potential for private profits”.

Tears and tantrums

Maybe Clegg still had an extremely bitter taste in his mouth over the sourness of the AV referendum campaign. Interestingly, though the referendum on AV was part of the “deal” of the Coalition agreement, Cameron craftily gave Clegg his sweetener and agreed to the referendum as Clegg used it as a bargaining tool for agreeing to get into bed with Cameron in the first place. Surely then with their differing views did they not realise tears and tantrums inevitably lay ahead?

There on one side of the fence were the Conservatives who couldn’t be more against the alternative vote system. They maintain first-past-the-post is good for government stability – arguing it maintains a relationship between constituents and their MPs.

On the other side of that fence perches the Liberal Democrats, who assert: “Britain’s political system is broken and because Labour and the Tories benefit most from this, they do not want the system changed.” Their goal couldn’t be any further from the Tories – arguing that local councils should have more power and control pledging to: “Take power from the state and give it to the people.”

“Britain’s political system is broken and  because Labour and the Tories benefit … they do not want the system changed.

No amount of sweeteners could also stop tensions simmering between both over plans to cut the 50 per cent tax rate. Cameron’s plans of rewarding the rich by helping them to get out of cutting Britain’s debt, of course did not go down well at all with the Liberal Democrats.

Clegg declared the 50 per cent tax rate (introduced by Labour in 2009 for those that earn more than £150,000 a year) should stay when “millions of people on ordinary incomes are struggling to make ends meet”.

The Tories responded by saying cutting the tax was vital for the economy and a necessity in attracting foreign investment and workers to Britain.

Clegg sat back and didn’t stop Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne saying what he thought. In an interview, Huhne claimed cutting the top rate of tax was just a way of “helping the Conservatives’ friends in the city to put their feet up”. Shame no one bothered to ask the Conservatives if they had now forgotten their famous slogan: We’re all in this together?

Going AWOL

Disconcerted grumblings continued between the two parties over plans for a bill of rights and the Beecroft report – a government commissioned review into reforms to employment law. The report – which was not officially made public – was leaked, revealing that British workers should be banned from claiming unfair dismissal. Liberal Democrats retorted, with Nick Clegg blocking the proposals – saying it would be “devastating for workers”, making them feel insecure in their professions.

And so it continued. Next up was a ruck and sulk over the EU deal to tackle the eurozone crisis. It went a bit like this: Clegg (pro-Europe) wanted Cameron (not pro-Europe) to reach a deal with all 27 members. After long negotiations (and a last minute 4am phone call), Cameron did what he wanted and vetoed the change saying: “It was not in Britain’s best interests.”

Clegg (now fuming) responded by publicly stating he was “bitterly disappointed” with the outcome in Brussels, warning there was a danger that the United Kingdom will be “isolated and marginalised”.

Then things got a bit dramatic.

Clegg went AWOL (literally) when Cameron addressed the House of Commons to explain why he used the veto in Brussels, with the Lib Dem leader refusing to attend and sit next to the prime minister in his customary place. This unsurprisingly left Cameron ready to be jumped on by the opposition. Labour leader Ed Miliband gleefully taunted Cameron that he couldn’t even persuade his deputy that not signing the treaty was a good outcome.

Undoubtedly, watching this was Clegg who – after the commons statement – justified his decision to stay away saying: “I would have been a distraction if I was there.” No-one believed that and no-one certainly believed Clegg when he later said, without a hint of conviction, that “the coalition was united and here to stay”.

Still smarting from the EU veto, Clegg, just before Christmas, ridiculed and mocked Cameron’s plans for marriage tax breaks. In his speech, the Liberal Democrat leader inferred the Tories have a dated approach to the family unit saying: “We should not take a particular version of the family institution, such as the 1950s model of suit-wearing, bread-winning dad and aproned, homemaking mother – and try and preserve it in aspic.”

Prime minister back to you – one quick question though – how can 2012 be the year we go for it if our government can’t actually agree on how to run Britain?
Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.