What London can learn from Moscow’s tandem

Received wisdom states that whenever a new trend grips America, it soon makes its way to Britain. However, following the indecisive outcome in the general election of May 6, the conservative/liberal coalition between David Cameron and Nick Clegg seems to have taken its lead from the East rather than the West.

In Russia, the so-called “tandem” arrangement between president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin, in force for more than two years, has been quietly effective. While European dithering threatened to make matters worse, Russia’s handling of the economic crisis was praised in a World Bank report of November 2008: “The government’s policy response so far – swift, comprehensive and co-ordinated – has helped limit the impact [of the crisis].”

Although the Russian tandem is fundamentally different to the Cameron/Clegg model (Medvedev is a head of state, Cameron is not; Putin and Medvedev are both from the same party, Camercon and Clegg are not; Medvedev is Putin’s anointed successor, Clegg and Cameron are former adversaries), they have a lot in common.

On the face of it, both versions match a tough-talking conservative traditionalist with a reforming, progressive idealist. However, in reality the protagonists are a lot closer in outlook to their respective tandem partners than we might first think. David Cameron has described himself as a “Liberal Conservative”; Nick Clegg agrees they are discovering they have more in common than they realised; and Medvedev and Putin often swap roles as “good cop, bad cop”. All four men are fully signed up to “modernising” or “reform” agendas – albeit within their own frames of reference – and all four men understand the need to control and consolidate the centre ground to marginalise dissenting voices from both Left and Right.

All men share a strong sense of pragmatism. In the shell-shocked realpolitik of the post-crisis era, they understand the simple need to “get things done”. For example, both tandems want to streamline their armies of bureaucrats – Medvedev/Putin in order to shorten chains of command and combat corruption; Cameron/Clegg to indicate they are deadly serious about getting on top of public finances.

So, what can Nick and Dave learn from the Vova and Dima show? Medvedev and Putin have perfected the double act Clegg and Cameron must learn, because everyone – media, opponents and disgruntled supporters alike – will seize upon any perceived difference of opinion in order to drive a wedge between them. To avoid discord, Medvedev and Putin have adopted the strategy of both saying the same things when questioned about their relationship, exuding an aura of complete mutual understanding. The Cameron/Clegg experiment will falter if they do not adopt a similar strategy. They will have to demonstrate their like-mindedness and willingness to put party differences to one side “for the sake of the nation”.

As with Medvedev/Putin before them, Cameron and Clegg have locked themselves into the notion of partnership as an unbreakable, almost sacred, gentleman’s agreement. A lot rides on this relationship, because the British tandem is inherently more unstable than its Russian countrepart, for two reasons. First, theirs is a marriage of convenience. Second, in a way that the Russian tandem does not, Cameron and Clegg have to carry their respective parties – and, by extension, the country – behind them on the strength their personal bond. It probably helps that the men seem to like each other.

The Medvedev/Putin tandem has reached a point of balance, not through the weakening or strengthening of one of the participants, but by maintaining something closer to parity between them. In order to maintain this parity, they operate a veto system where each can block the proposals of the other. Here, once again, the Cameron/Clegg axis seems to be ahead of the game. Their recent 32-page manifesto reads as a paean to collaborative action, with many long-held policies from both sides dropped or kicked into the long grass to facilitate the action they agree on.

Mirroring the situation existing in pre-2008 Russia, Britain is totally unused to the concept of a tandem arrangement based on the personal mandates of two men, so changing existing power structures was always going to be the order of the day. While in Russia this has resulted in the creation of numerous committees and commissions set up by both Putin and Medvedev, and tinkering with the presidential term of office, in Britain, initial moves by the coalition include controversial proposals to increase a Commons dissolution vote majority to 55pc, and “realigning” the House of Lords. Cameron has also succeeded in bouncing his Tory MPs into accepting front-bench interference in their influential (and potentially obstructive) backbench group, the 1922 Committee.

So what of the future? In Russia, amid signs of fractures in the tandem, there is a growing feeling that Medvedev the protégé has been quietly establishing his own power base – which may or may not threaten the stability of his agreement with Putin. While the British tandem promises a brave new world of political co-operation, it’s far too soon to say that we are witnessing the death throes of traditional party politics. Cameron and Clegg are sure to incur the wrath of at least part of the electorate, especially when their much-trailed “tough decisions” begin to bite. And, as career politicians both, David Cameron and Nick Clegg must surely foster the ambition to wield power alone.

Both tandems will always have to contend with the dissenting voices of opponents who fundamentally disagree on policy. In Britain, there is a rump of disaffected voters which, despite voting Lib-Dem to keep the Tories out, got David Cameron; in Russia, there are those who believe a vote for Medvedev is just a vote to keep Putin in power.

As it stands, both tandem agreements can be seen as works in progress to a smaller or greater extent. In Britain, it’s an exciting time even, perhaps, for opponents of the ruling coalition. The prospect of a new politics, combined with a back-to-the-wall attitude towards economic belt-tightening, has bred a kind optimistic determination in the country; this will ensure that the Cameron/Clegg tandem gets the benefit of the doubt, at least in the short term. In the longer term, as with Russia people will want to see how the fine talk is converted into action before deciding the overall success of the venture.

Nothing lasts forever, and a week is a long time in politics. But don’t be surprised to see the British political elite following developments in Moscow just a little bit more closely. Who knows, the experience of riding the tandem may even draw the two nations closer as they attempt to create the consensus politics of the future.

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