In turn, the Lib Dems responded by withdrawing support for constituency boundary changes aimed at redressing anti-Tory bias in general elections. Lib Dem and Tory ministers openly argued with one another. For a few desperate months the Coalition lost all sense of definition, and it was very hard at times to see how it could survive.
Emergency repairs were, however, going on behind the scenes, where David Cameron and Nick Clegg were supervising a programme that would sustain their rickety government for a further two years in office. Doing so took nine months’ hard negotiation, and involved many difficult moments and stops and starts. Their work first bore fruit with the Mid-Term Review, published in January. This rather overlooked document contained the seeds of the sharp, dynamic and purposeful legislative programme announced in Parliament yesterday.
To put matters clearly, the Coalition has put to an end all remaining mystery about its continued existence. Pretty well any government can come up with a worthwhile Queen’s Speech in the first year of a parliament. It is almost unknown to produce a strong Queen’s Speech in year four. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have achieved the near impossible, and in exceptionally difficult circumstances.
The key point to grasp is that not one of the major measures read out yesterday by Her Majesty were in the original Coalition Agreement thrashed out by the Conservatives and Lib Dems in May 2010. Every single one of them – new funding for carers, a pensions revolution, a fresh look at immigration, the dramatic new attack on business red tape – has been generated while in office.
But this year’s Queen’s Speech is far more than a collection of dubious initiatives cynically designed to keep the show on the road. It is guided by a moral and philosophical idea of incomparable significance. It sets out to restore the importance of personal saving.
For the bulk of the 20th century, British wage-earners took it for granted that it was virtuous to set aside money for their retirement and for a rainy day. This notion has vanished. Gordon Brown looted or ruined British pension schemes, while creating a perverse system of financial incentives which made it sheer madness for ordinary people to set aside money for old age. The more they saved for themselves, the less they got from the state. Some think this system was based on calculation: Labour may have preferred voters to be dependent on state benefits rather than standing on their own two feet.
The distortion was very similar to the double jeopardy Brown created for those returning to the job market, where he made it financially rational to remain on state benefits rather than to take work. Iain Duncan Smith has devoted the first three years of his time as Work and Pensions Secretary to undoing this obscene abuse of the welfare system.
Now Steve Webb, his pensions minister (an unassuming Liberal Democrat who has turned into one of the outstanding ministerial successes of this government) is taking an axe to the Brown system. Just as Mr Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will make it impossible to lose out financially by returning to work, so Mr Webb’s pension reforms will guarantee that those who do the right thing and save are not then hammered by the state. Jeremy Hunt’s Care Bill, which caps social care costs for the elderly at £72,000, sends out the same message.
Taken as a whole, the significance of the Queen’s Speech is therefore enormous. Yesterday, the Coalition Government reinvented itself. Most coalitions come together to confront (in the words of Gladstone) “a great and palpable emergency of state”, then swiftly fade. This one has shown that it possesses the capacity to keep going.
This underlying momentum is frequently invisible because of the hostility between Lib Dem and Tory activists and MPs. At Westminster this can often be vicious beyond belief, and an impediment to progress.
For example, Mr Cameron cannot give in to recent pressure from Right-wingers and legislate for a referendum on Europe because Lib Dem MPs simply wouldn’t let him. Meanwhile, Tories talk contemptuously of the “yellow peril”: many harbour something close to hatred for their Lib Dem colleagues on the government benches.
This hostility obscures the excellent relations at the very top of the Coalition. The key to yesterday’s formidable Queen’s Speech lies in hours and hours of painstaking negotiations between the Conservative minister Oliver Letwin and his Lib Dem counterpart, David Laws, over nine months last year.
While Tories and Lib Dems blasted each other publicly, Laws and Letwin were designing a serious programme for government. In due course their work expanded to include David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander (the so-called Quad, where Government business is agreed and driven through, has in many ways become a group of six). Finally their work was signed off by Cabinet.
A poor Queen’s Speech yesterday and the Coalition might have been doomed. It simply would not have had the ballast to confront the inevitable turbulence over the parliamentary year ahead, which starts with a poisonous negotiation over the next spending review, due to conclude in July.
In 12 months’ time, with only a year to go – at the most – before election day, it will be impossible to repeat the trick. Legislation takes ages to take effect – a year to go through Parliament, two years to be implemented, perhaps another decade to bed down genuine and lasting change.
Nevertheless, yet again this Coalition Government has defied logic and refused to be brought down by the weight of its internal contradictions. With this brilliant Queen’s Speech, it has bought itself another year.