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Westminster watch

Simon Barrow

BarrowAmid the post-election manoeuvring, 'the narrative' of the coalition has remained in strong competition for reporting space with actual policy.

In a delightful press conference on economy and home affairs, Vince Cable, widely recognised as one of the least-spun and most straightforward members of the Cabinet, let the cat out of the (admittedly transparent) bag. 'We're making it up as we go along,' he muttered, after a miscued introduction by Theresa May.

This is undoubtedly true, both for good and ill. Though much was made of the tensions and differences between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats immediately after the announcement of the coalition, subsequent investigation has shown that their common interests are equally strong. Cameronistas have been tempering market enthusiasm and building social concern in order to steer the old 'nasty' Tory party to electorally favourable ground in a broadly liberal society, while Cleggites have been wanting to show they can be tough cutters as well as caring sharers.

This means that the reforming of the electoral system and the taming of the database state have been able to come to the fore in a way that would not have been possible with a singular Conservative administration. But it also means that some quite vicious public spending cuts, hitting those nearer the bottom than the top of society, will also be massaged and disguised with 'compassion' rhetoric.

This is where 'the narrative' becomes so important once more. The advent of a coalition administration breaks both the rulebook and the lexicon of post-war British politics - in Westminster, at least. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been pushing against the old duopoly for a few years now, but the London-based commentariat and broadcasting giants have been slow to perceive the full significance of this. Until the UK electorate delivered what would previously have been considered an unexpected verdict.

Since the new arrangements do not render themselves instantly recognisable or comprehensible in the language of the old, the analogy-generators quickly got to work: is Lib-Con consorting a 'match made in heaven' or are we Con-Demned to a marriage of convenience? The jury is out in media watering holes, and will now reserve its judgement until after the June budget statement and maybe the World Cup.

What we can be sure of is that although the term employs that misleading definite article, 'the narrative' is no such singular thing. It is actually a series of different stories about 'what is really going on' each competing with the other. But in the absence of a 'normal' two-party slugfest, and in the presence of surprising consonances as well as contradictions in the new coalescing environment, we are likely to have to go on re-writing the political thesaurus. Is this real change or an old style pas de deux? Almost certainly a bit of both.