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Watch the Tories sidling up to the Lib Dems: the foundations for a post-election pact

Fraser Nelson reviews the week in politics

2 April 2008

12:00 AM

2 April 2008

12:00 AM

Now that Francis Maude is no longer lurking around Conservative headquarters dampening any high spirits he might encounter, bubbles of optimism are allowed to float with impunity around Team Cameron. For the last three weeks, the Tories have enjoyed double-digit opinion poll leads. The consensus in Westminster is that the Conservatives (or, more accurately, Boris Johnson) will capture London next month. Some bookmakers are now predicting an outright Conservative victory at the general election, whenever Gordon Brown deigns to hold it. The end of opposition appears, at last, to be in sight.

In the absence of Mr Maude, the cure for Tory euphoria lies in the other dismal science: psephology. The British electoral system remains notoriously biased against the Conservatives, such that a ten-point lead over Labour is a necessity rather than a luxurious advantage for David Cameron. To achieve a Tory victory will require a 7 per cent swing — something that has only been achieved twice, in 1945 and 1997. Mr Cameron does not just need more votes than Mr Brown. He has to secure the largest swing in the history of the modern Conservative party.

So the Tories’ contingency planning behind the scenes has to involve an unwelcome interloper: Nick Clegg. Mr Cameron can win a million more votes than Mr Brown and still be unable to form a majority — leaving him with a choice between forming a coalition, or trying to struggle by in the Commons day by day, hand to mouth (the heir to Callaghan, so to speak, rather than the heir to Blair). This means party strategists are already placing prospective policy measures into three categories. Those that could be implemented without any new legislation (such as welfare reform), those that would require Lib Dem support (education reform) and those that would only be possible with a working Commons majority (renegotiation of EU membership).

For there to be any prospect of co-operation with Mr Clegg, the intellectual framework must first be established. The task is to render obsolete the old-fashioned, conventional left-right divide — a psychological fissure in national life which Labour has always used to appeal to Lib Dem sympathies (remember Blair and Ashdown and their plans for a ‘Full Monty’ merger?). Those seeking to lay the philosophical groundwork for Tory–Lib Dem collaboration claim that the dividing line that counts in 2008 now lies between those who believe in the power of the state (Mr Brown and the Labour left), and those who seek instead a ‘post-bureaucratic state’ and the empowerment of communities and citizens (Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg and key Blairites).

The idea is to forge what some Tories describe as an ‘axis of localism’. The areas of potential convergence are outlined in an excellent pamphlet by CentreForum, a Liberal Democrat think tank which notes the ‘significant congruence of opinion’ between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. ‘These two declared liberals share a vision of a new, “post-bureaucratic” politics in which power is devolved, not just from central to local government, but from government at all levels.’

In many ways, the ideological fusion is already taking place. ‘The days of big government solutions, of the man in Whitehall knowing best, are now coming to an end,’ Clegg declared last autumn. He is on record calling for ‘a politics of people, not systems. Of communities, not bureaucracies.’

It was significant that Michael Gove made his speech about education reform to CentreForum last week — his third appearance at their events. It was, he said, ‘a policy which I hope David Laws [his Lib Dem counterpart] could support’. And this is more than a plea for intellectual fellowship. If the Conservatives can only form a minority government after the next election, the extent of agreement between Gove and Laws may well decide whether or not the Tories’ dynamic plans for school reform are enacted. Both parties propose a Swedish-style voucher system, paying independent schools to teach state pupils. They only differ over the sums involved, and where the money could come from.

Both parties also propose using ‘green taxes’ to reduce the tax burden on lower-income families. Again, the Lib Dem plan involves several more billions — but this is a dispute of scale rather than of principle. Crucially, the Charles Kennedy era of calling for tax rises appears to be over.

Proportional representation is perhaps the biggest area of dispute. Labour is again talking about voting reform, but any such plan is anathema to its northern MPs who fear it would sink them in Lab–Lib marginal seats. Sir Menzies Campbell last year sacked his spokesman for suggesting that PR was ‘not a deal breaker’. As it happens, this remark did indeed reflect the private thinking of the Lib Dem leadership. But the grassroots certainly see electoral reform as non-negotiable. The members’ often uneasy relationship with the party leadership would vastly complicate the brokering of a Cameron–Clegg deal on this matter.

The Tories’ belief is that any pact would be temporary. One shadow minister puts it thus: ‘We would need them for about a year, to get through the first Queen’s Speech, and we can only do what we both agree on. Sooner or later they’ll refuse to work with us, and we could say, “They’ve driven us to call an election” — which the public would not thank them for. The odds are that, after a second election in 2011 or 2012, we’d get a majority.’ This view is common: a hung parliament would last a couple of years as most. It would be a staging post to a full majority — or so the Tories hope.

There are other options available to the Tories. The five Scottish National Party MPs (or however many there are after the election) might well take the Cameron shilling in return for granting Holyrood power over all tax and spending — a plan David Davis has long supported. Then there are the nine DUP members to consider. And let us not forget that if the Tories do their job properly at the next election, there will be far fewer Lib Dem MPs with whom to strike a deal. If the current polls are a guide, Mr Clegg’s strength in the Commons will almost halve from 63 to 32 MPs.

If there are talks about a Con–Lib pact, we can expect to hear little about them. As the Lib Dems were told at their secret seminar about ‘balanced parliament options’ in Henley in March last year, ‘such speculation is a near fatal third-party disadvantage’. Yet this has become integral to the thinking and strategy of many senior Cameroons including George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, who has long believed in the need for both tactical and strategic co-operation with the third party.

But, in these heady times, victory rather than coalition remains the goal. Those around Mr Cameron say privately, as well as publicly, that the required 7 per cent swing is eminently achievable. The party is starting from a lower base, runs the argument, and will benefit from tactical voting by those unwilling to take another five years of Gordon Brown. And, after all, Mr Cameron won the party leadership against the odds. He recovered from a dire summer and emerged stronger than ever from the cancelled election against the odds. The Tory strategy for winning a majority next time is — at heart — rooted in a faith that their man can defy the odds once again.

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