Last night, in a Commons committee room, David Laws gave a short speech that revealed a great deal. The former chief secretary to the Treasury was in office for less than a month in 2010 but remains enormously well-regarded within both the Lib Dem and Conservative parties. If you were expecting the coalition agreement 2.0 to be a wholesale renewal bursting with new policies, this speech will have disappointed you. Speaking at a Bright Blue event on ‘The Future of the Coalition’, Laws talked about how it "should be about meeting existing goals". For Laws, the original 2010 agreement remains the basis on which the coalition should run until 2015.
But for a man known for his economic ability, Laws interestingly stated that he wanted the government also to focus on "social recovery" as well as economic recovery. That could only happen if there were no splits on the economy – one of several warnings Laws provided in his speech. Another was that both coalition parties must "avoid policy paralysis". Laws believes his party must be known for being an "accelerator" for the coalition on issues like raising the income tax threshold, and not simply block policies it doesn’t like. "There needs to be a constructive competition over ideas," said the former chief secretary to the Treasury, clearly with a keen eye on keeping the coalition’s momentum going once it reaches the halfway point of a five year fixed-term (unless it collapses beforehand).
We know that David Laws is a man trusted by both sides of the coalition, so it was striking to hear him discuss why the "necessary modernisation" of both parties must not be stopped by the danger of "day-to-day" frustrations. He called for the Lib Dems and the Tories to ignore their left and right wings respectively. Neither party should differentiate into "old comfort zones", he said. "Outdated" policies and principles should not halt the modernisation project. His clarion call: "This could be a great reforming government" − reveals the hope invested in the coalition by those members of the government operating in the centre.
This speech was a clear call for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to meet in the political centre and ignore the wings that could drag down the coalition. This view of the coalition as a grand reforming project sounds attractive to those in government (how could it not?) – but it also ignores large sections of both parties. It looks like we will have to wait for a reshuffle until later in the year to see if David Laws returns to government. As far as I understand it, he would prefer a wide-ranging role, similar to Oliver Letwin, rather than being placed in one department. Perhaps, one day in the not-too-distant future, it will be David Laws ensuring the great reforming project remains on track.
In the Q&A following the speech, Laws said he was hopeful that the Lib Dems would revive themselves. He’s not alone in his party in using the well-worn refrain that the Lib Dems deal better than other parties with low poll numbers because they’ve been there in the past – and recovered. Laws said that "cut-through" to the public on three or four issues by the time of the election would be a success for the party. Now, those past recoveries might be a sign that a future revival by the Lib Dems is possible. But, then again, they’ve never been in power before. No one can know whether taking the opportunity of power will cost them dearly. Instead, Lib Dems from top to bottom have hope to keep them involved in the coalition. Will that be enough for it to last until 2015?