Strange bedfellows: on the prospect of a Con-Lib pact

By the time tomorrow dawns, the Conservative Party may well wake to find itself curled up in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Is this a good or a bad thing?

Gradually, having caught up on that lost sleep — can anyone remind me why it seemed at good idea to stay up in order to watch Ed Balls being charmless yet again? — the Tory commentariat has begun to acclimatize itself to the realities of a hung parliament, at least to the extent of organising itself into semi-predictable factions.

Both Guido and Iain Dale, for instance, are four-square behind full entanglement, rebranded as something called the Change Coalition. In Guido’s case, this involves making common cause with the more libertarian adepts of the Orange Book in order both to ‘open up politics and government, to roll back an authoritarian state’, but also ‘to destroy the Labour Party as a party of government forever’. Quite why the Labour party would somehow be ‘destroyed’ by the opportunity to select a new leader, to sit out what will inevitably be a period of deeply unpopular spending cuts and public sector contraction and to establish itself anew as the only credible left-of-centre party on offer, remains unclear to me. Iain Dale, in contrast, substitutes for argument the lapidary assertion that ‘it’s no good following Norman Tebbit’s logic and sticking your head in the ground like an ostrich and ignoring the realpolitik of the situation’ — which at least is quite funny, what with the implication that e.g. Oliver Letwin, one of Cameron’s key coalition negotiators, is a more reliable practitioner of realpolitik than Lord Tebbit — — or indeed, as far as that goes, that Lord Tebbit, having helped to achieve four consecutive Conservative general election victories, knows less about realpolitik than a Tory commentator who, for all that admirable enthusiasm, energy and loyalty to his friends, sadly isn’t always too good at winning elections.

In any event, it’s hardly as if Lord Tebbit is alone in opposing a deal with the LibDems, advising Mr Cameron that minority government is in so many ways the smarter option. And while some of his erstwhile allies are again perhaps predictable ones — Peter Hitchens, John Redwood — others are less so, e.g. those consistent neo-conservative bores Melanie Phillips and Nile Gardiner, or the infinitely more appealing Fraser Nelson, still in my good books for that savaging of Vince Cable on the BBC’s campaign show. Yet on the other hand, there are also some surprising proponents of some sort of more or less formal Con-Lib deal. Perhaps one shouldn’t be amazed that Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell are enthusiasts — correctly seeing in these coalition negotiations the opportunity to gain traction for their progressive curates’ egg of a Plan — or that the Murdoch press evinces a casual preference for Cameron-in-power at more or less any price, but I’m slightly surprised to find Sir John Major, Lord Heseltine et al heading in the same direction, with Matthew d’Ancona bringing up the rear. And let’s not forget William Hague, either, who on the back of a good election has solidified his status as the King Over The Water amongst a reasonable tranche of Tory malcontents, but who is now bound into any pact through his role as a principal negotiator — possibly as close as the Cameroon high command gets to tactical cunning.

Time, in any event, for the rest of us mere mortals to make choices. On which side of this pressing issue should Fugitive Ink line up?

On the one hand, it’s not hard to think of advantages to some sort of Con-Lib collaboration. Not least, the very worst sort of left-wingers — which is to say, those blandly apolitical types who only discover any form of political consciousness once the Tories are on the brink of power, at which point Tory-hating, the more shrill and hysterical the better, suddenly becomes both an essential badge of right-on cultural identification and an excuse to avoid rational examination of Labour’s record in office — will spit blood about it, for all the usual incoherent, half-understood, deeply-felt ‘reasons’. And that can only be a heart-warming thing. Some of them will feel betrayed because that nice Mr Clegg turns out to be just like other politicians, i.e. someone capable of compromise, pragmatism, and because the ‘change’ he promised turns out to look quite a lot like two public school boys making deals with each other in Palladian rooms behind a good Robert Adam screen. So far, so good, eh?

This scenario also gives Mr Brown, once he has done his constitutional duty, the chance to stand down, regroup and enjoy the colocynthic fruits of elder statesmanship. Reviled for objecting to bigotry and for being disabled, denounced variously as mad, obscurely depraved and Scottish, he really has suffered enough by now. For if Tony Blair managed, admittedly with a degree of help, to make the exercise of power look easy, I somehow doubt that Mr Brown will be the last to discover that it can, in fact, be quite testing.

And then there are the LibDems themselves. As implied here recently, like Guido, I number at least a few LibDems amongst my friends and favourite email correspondents, and while I may disagree with them individually about all sorts of things, at least most of the disagreements take place within a context of broadly shared assumptions, a degree of mutual respect and the mature realisation that different people sometimes reach the same place from completely different points of departure. Thus inoculated by circumstances against the stronger strains of tribal antipathy, I’d actually find it quite fun, at least for a while, to be somehow on the same side as my LibDem pals. More to the point, though, since the Tory party is, in itself, a sort of haphazard and rickety coalition in search of power, it’s not as if long-time party members are unaccustomed to dealing with these issues. The ill-informed, banker-bashing, redistributive nonsense that spews forth from Mr Cable is, for instance, hardly much worse than that which spews forth from Mr Osborne. The income tax exemption for the low-paid, the limited amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants and the scepticism about Trident could be read as Tory pragmatism as plausibly as Liberal idealism. And if we are asked to welcome as some sort of recognisably Conservative triumph the elevation of Ms Louise Bagshaw to the Palace of Westminster, is it really such a struggle to find a place in our hearts for David Laws?

No, the real problem with a Con-Lib pact has far less to do with the LibDems than with the other half of the equation. Put bluntly, like an increasing large and vocal group of Conservatives, I don’t trust Mr Cameron’s judgement.

People who say that this is the wrong time for an election post-mortem miss a fairly basic point, which is that the problems with Mr Cameron’s management of the party, his grasp of the public mood and the overall quality of his leadership are only becoming more obvious as the months and years go by. The catastrophe of the general election simply showed up the familiar defects in a new and unsparing light.

The election truly was, by any sane standard, a catastrophe for the Conservative party. Faced with a faction-riven government clearly tired out and aimless after 13 long years in power and headed up by a socially awkward and deeply unlucky prime minister, while at the same time enjoying all-but-unlimited funding, what did the Cameroons do? In effect, they spent millions of pounds sterling reducing the Tory lead from above 40 percent down to 36 percent. Their arrogance prevented them from noticing that a campaign based entirely around Mr Cameron himself — which is to say, without a distinctive manifesto, eye-catching policies and a clear sense of conservative vision — was hardly likely to appeal to those who found Mr Cameron smug and patronising, who resented his lies over the referendum on the Lisbon treaty, or who distrusted his apparently unprincipled desire for power. From Scotland, rumours drift southward of tales to be told about how it was that the Conservative vote in Scotland has now collapsed so decisively, perhaps even terminally. And from London, gossip emerges about the bad manners, to put it no more strongly, of some hand-picked Cameroon candidates. So the tragedy, when it comes to be recounted in full, will have a strong local and specific quality.

Yet at the same time, we can perhaps assume that it will be replete with generic verities. In all too many of those unhappy constituencies where dud candidates were imposed by CCHQ upon unwilling local associations, where the Ashcroft millions were squandered on easily-parodied billboards and pointlessly negative broadcasts, where the campaign failed to address real issues on the assumption that the electorate not only dislikes strong argument but indeed hardly notes its absence — here we can read the augurys of how Cameroon intuition plays out in practice. Give the Cameroons an important and apparently straight-forward problem to solve — this is what happens. It’s been said before, but it could do with saying again — from Portillo passim to the clique around Hague in ’97, from their takeover of IDS in 2002 to the electoral travails of some of their individual exponents, the Modernisers are simply not very good at achieving what they set out to do. And so when they are turned loose with a general election strategy, or for that matter, negotiations over the shape and substance of a governing coalition, this should matter to all Conservatives, not just the ones with long memories.

So that, in essence, is why I do not trust Mr Cameron as he sets about making a pact with Mr Clegg. I do not trust Mr Cameron to judge the relative strength of the Tory position. What’s more, I suspect he will give away far more than he needs to do — not simply because he’s bad at deal-making, but because much of what he gives away will matter very little to him. Mr Cameron is not, after all, a man who cares much about history, tradition, or principle, whether these things are applied to his own party or, as far as that goes, our national interest. During the election, he blithely employed a rhetoric of ‘progress’, ‘radicalism’, novelty and liberalism as if he were nothing to with the Conservative party at all, placing himself squarely on the side of ‘change’ and ‘reform’ without ever spelling out the details of any of these things. So I cannot see why he would possibly cavil at yet more haphazard demolition of our time-tested constitutional structures and conventions, any more than he would seek to defend private property, enterprise or faith from the enemies of all these things, if doing so would bring him any closer to power.

To the extent that there’s a backstop on the mistakes that Mr Cameron and his clique can make, it’s what’s left of his parliamentary party. Of course, the more cynical students of Cameroonism in practice will detect in his recourse to Con-Lib collaboration a means of bypassing the need to command the assent of the more awkward characters on his own benches, especially those whom he regards as right-of-centre. Never having had much sympathy with the small-c conservative bulk of his party, what could be better than removing entirely the irksome necessity of retaining their support? And yet, for all that, Mr Cameron is not a particularly adept party manager — contrary to what some of his enthusiasts may claim, ‘strong leadership’ means more than just sacking whoever the media tell you to sack, unless they are part of the Cameroon inner circle — and it’s not beyond the wit of his backbenchers to make life difficult for him.

Of course, the fact that the present crop of Tory MPs includes so many first-timers has been taken to imply that they will be easy to manage. Surely it’s possible, though, to make precisely the opposite argument? No one, I think, would claim that raw recruits are easier to command than well-drilled, battle-hardened veterans, especially when under heavy fire — so why assume that novice MPs will immediately fall into line? At the same time, it’s worth noting that the new intake includes a few egos large enough to give any whip cause for concern. Is it really likely that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Zac Goldsmith and Rory Stewart, just to name the first few who come to find, genuinely envision a patient, unassertive, largely silent slog up the cursus honorum?

But while we’re on this topic, it’s worth noting that the class of ’10 also counts among its number quite a few long-time Conservative activists — I’ll spare their collective embarrassment by not naming them here — who, despite not being household names, are nonetheless men and women of real intelligence, courage and integrity. Having worked within the party since long before Mr Cameron showed even a casual interest in it, I doubt they will put up with watching him gamble it away for the sake of a few months’ tenure in Downing Street, any more than their more experienced parliamentary colleagues, quite a few of whom have had it up to there with Mr Cameron anyway, will put up with an infinite number of totally unnecessary, Steve Hilton-generated disasters.

The most obvious winners from a Con-Lib pact are, it seems to me, the Labour Party. With the commentariat at least semi-distracted by a form of government unknown in this country for a generation or two, Labour can get on with selecting a new leader, sorting out some of their own internal conflicts, re-asserting their slightly damaged credibility as the only serious party of the centre-left, taking potshots at the Con-Lib pushmi-pullyu from the safety of the opposition benches and preparing themselves for a forthcoming election in which they can market themselves as being uniquely uncontaminated by whatever it is that Cameron-Clegg have done. Given the pretty remarkable way in which the Labour high command managed, last week, to claw some sort of credible showing back from what had hoped would be total and utter extinction, this must be a prospect they view with optimism.

By a similar token, those with most to lose are, surely, the LibDems themselves. Most of their activists will, I suppose, feel disappointed that the LibDems’ amazing surge in the polls mid-campaign was not matched with a commensurate surge at least in their share of the popular vote, if not in their parliamentary showing. And for many, the idea of cooperation with the hated Tories will be literally unacceptable. For the sake of having a handful of ministers in a cabinet headed by David Cameron and delivering, quite possibly, some of the most thoroughly unpopular policies of modern times, they risk contamination so profound that it make take generations to dispel — the loss of whatever was left of their status as a nice, centrist, non-embarassing party. At the same time, to the extent that Mr Cameron concedes some degree of voting reform — a free vote on a referendum on PR, for instance — the LibDems lose the one issue which, more than any other, made their party distinctive and gave it a share of the ideological high-ground. For once PR has arrived, once the House of Lords has been reduced to a defective simulacrum of the not-very-satisfactory House of Commons and the ancient link between MPs and their constituencies has been destroyed, what more will the LibDems have to offer? Fondness for the EU, I suppose, a bit of lite-greenery, some pro civil liberties rhetoric and occasional opposition to the less popular foreign wars — always in the shadow of charges of opportunism, political naivety and condign cynicism. One can see how some LibDems might, at that point, feel that an opportunity had been waste.

And what of the Tories? Alone, of all the parties, the Conservative Party could afford — at least in financial terms — to fight another general election tomorrow. To the extent that an encouraging amount of common ground already exists between the LibDems and the Tories on matters of civil liberties, political reform, a broad swathe of economic policy, etcetera, why bother with a formal coalition? As it is, the whole choreography of the negotiations has left Mr Cameron looking reactive and slightly desperate, Mr Clegg powerful and dynamic, which isn’t really the way it should be. In any event, it is far from clear that the LibDems would have required any huge inducements to pursue some sort of rudimentary confidence and supply policy, if only because the electorate might reasonably be supposed to look darkly upon a party which triggered the collapse of a government either casually or vindictively — but it is also far from clear that anything very dreadful would happen if the Tories were given this second chance at winning what they ought to have won in the first place. Going it alone would take a degree of nerve, but it would also require a preference for principle over power-as-an-end-in-itself, a sense that a Conservative government, stating its position clearly and honestly, both could and should be able to win an electoral mandate outright.

Of course, for anyone who enjoys politics, this is all good fun of the most irresponsible sort — the obvious metaphors about inappropriate alliances, their fascinations and potential perils, presumably apply. And yet, at the same time, the issues raised could hardly be more serious. Formal coalition between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats — good idea or not? When it comes to taking sides, it’s not what this increasingly imminent possibility says about the LibDems that worries me — it’s what it says about my own Conservative Party, its collective self-belief, its current leadership and future prospects. And, well, for the moment I’m unconvinced — but more than willing for history to prove my pessimism wrong.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Strange bedfellows: on the prospect of a Con-Lib pact

  1. Arnold Peabody

    I don’t trust Mr Cleggs judgment. He was to be the Hollywood star that would woo the electorate and distract them from their policies.

    A Lib Con pact is a far more appropriate description. It leaves us, the people, in no doubt as to the intentions of the party.
    The manifestos, we the people considered are torn up and the people once again disenfranchised. The Queen should consider her position and immediately call for another election.

  2. You make some good points, and I was eagerly awaiting your take on last week’s events. I disagree about the Labour party’s ability to regroup in time for an election this year, especially in my constituency, where only 42 people who thought that voting Lib Dem would oust Labour’s Glenda Jackson need to recognise their error to add another loss to the red column.

    Against that, Labour has done spectacularly well in the London local elections: winning back nine councils (Brent, Camden, Ealing, Enfield, Harrow, Hounslow, Islington, Lewisham and Southwark). Conservatives also managed to lose control of Redbridge but gain Richmond from the Liberal Democrats. For the record, a Conservative performance somewhat better than this in 1990 was considered justification for scrapping the Poll Tax and getting rid of Margaret Thatcher. For some.

    The danger for the Lib Dems is immense: they blew it in the campaign and they are contaminating themselves with power. I’ll never forget how during the events leading up to the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi invasion (1990-1991), that the more Paddy Ashdown commented knowledegably on military operations (as a former special forces officer), the more appealing he seemed to the general public, and the more appalled his party members were. Similar horrors await anyone competently negotiating with Vladimir Putin or setting out a budget that cuts taxes and freezes benefits.

    A final note: a lot of fringe parties will be unable to finance a second slate of parliamentary deposits. This is where a serious protest group can get a foothold, if they have money and volunteers.

  3. Thanks, Antoine. To be fair, though, I didn’t exactly say that Labour would easily win an election later this year — simply that, given what they were up against this last time, I thought they’d feel pretty positive about it, especially if they were lucky enough to go into the election with a bright, shiny new leader …

    Since posting this in something of a rush at 1.35 pm, though, because I had to go run an errand, the landscape has changed yet again, so that if I was writing it now I’d have included something about a Lib-Lab pact and its consequences for everyone involved, something about the forthcoming leadership election (the Labour one, that is — don’t get too excited) and of course something about that fight — if only more politicians and their fellow-travellers would stand up to Mr Murdoch’s mouthpieces like that!

    (And before anyone accuses me of missing the obvious, I do see that Adam Boulton is married to Anji Hunter, that when Mr Campbell (and Mr Campbell’s partner Fiona Millar) were working at No. 10, Ms Hunter was as close to Tony Blair as Mr Campbell was, and hence that much if not all of the friction here relates to Blairite chapters of history, not Brownite ones. Is it fair to say that the rather upper-middle-middle-class Ms Hunter cut loose from Labour once Mr Blair was out of the picture, and that Mr Boulton is following her lead, while Mr Campbell has lived to play out yet another chapter of the epic Brown-Mandelson-Campbell drama, albeit one that ended today? Perhaps someone who understands the Labour Party’s inner workings can enlighten me. Until then, I repeat what I’ve said a thousand times before: Campbell’s ‘The Blair Years’ is the stuff of which great opera could all too easily be made.