The last Liberal Democrat conference before the general election has been dominated by denunciations of the ‘nasty’ Tories. Lib Dems claim they are shocked to find George Osborne proposing a freeze in working age benefits. But can they really be so very surprised? Given that they themselves blocked the Tories from implementing this policy in the current parliament, they must have suspected that Osborne would want to do it in the next.
But through all the platform rhetoric, the outlines of a second Tory/Lib Dem coalition have become clear in the past fortnight. The parties now agree on raising the income tax threshold to £12,500, protecting the NHS budget and, as Vince Cable made clear in his conference speech, cracking down on EU benefit tourism.
There have been two negotiating red lines drawn at this conference by the Liberal Democrats. The first would stop the Tories from scrapping the Human Rights Act, but when Chris Grayling announced this policy he was careful to stress that it was only what a Tory majority government would do. In other words, it won’t be a deal breaker. The second red line, on mental health, is not something that one can imagine either of the main parties objecting to. So there is no impassable barrier to a second Tory/Lib Dem coalition if the numbers are there after the election.
Why, then, has there been so much Tory- bashing at this conference? Well, as senior Liberal Democrats admit, they need to fire up their activists. The party’s whole election strategy is dependent on getting its message out to 10,000 to 15,000 homes in its held seats and to do that it needs people out knocking on doors. There is no quicker way to motivate this group than to tell them that they are fighting to stop the ‘nasty’ Tories from doing illiberal, regressive things.
The Liberal Democrats believe that the seats they are most likely to save are their Tory-facing ones. They hope they can persuade ‘soft Cons’ to vote for them as a check on the Tories’ harder edge. One Lib Dem minister sums up the party’s message as: ‘You need to keep the Tories on the leash — and we’re the leash. So vote for the leash.’ Finally, the more the Liberal Democrats attack the Tories, the better chance they have of keeping hold of left-wing voters who might in these seats hold their nose and vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out.
There is a danger, thoughtful Liberal Democrats concede, to this approach. If Clegg and co. keep suggesting that the Tories are morally deficient, it’ll look very odd to the public if they go back into government with them. But, in truth, the Clegg court would, if the maths made it possible, rather do another coalition with the Tories than Labour. One powerful figure in the party says of the leadership, ‘I don’t know anyone who favours a coalition with Labour.’
The problems of going in with Labour are threefold. First, the Liberal Democrats would have to be the bad guys of that government, the apostles of spending restraint. It would give the party an identity crisis far more severe than anything brought on by the current coalition. Next, it would risk doing to the party in the south what this government has done to it in Labour areas. One hardened campaigner warns that a Lib Dem-Labour coalition is a recipe for going from 56 seats to 17 in two elections.
There are also worries about governing with Ed Miliband. Norman Lamb, now a health minister but Clegg’s parliamentary private secretary at the start of the coalition, let the cat out of the bag when he dismissed Miliband as simply not up to being prime minister. Indeed, it is striking how no one has had a good word to say about the Labour leader in Glasgow this week. Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, who has previously been warm towards Miliband, has decreed that the comparison between Miliband and Neil Kinnock is unfair to Kinnock. Vince Cable, who used to send texts to Miliband praising his speeches, mocked him mercilessly for forgetting about the deficit in his big set-piece this time.
Lib Dem power brokers say it is not just they who are thinking about a second term for the coalition. They claim that when one of their number challenged George Osborne about how realistic it was to suggest that the deficit can be closed without any tax rises, the Chancellor smiled and replied, ‘That’s what you’re going to make me do.’
There remain several practical hurdles to another coalition. The Lib Dems and Tories would have to have enough seats between them to have a working majority. This condition, however, looks increasingly likely to be met. The current Tory poll lead over Labour might be a conference bounce, but it is likely that the election campaign will have a similar effect on the Tories’ ratings. Labour also seems poised to enter a period of introspection. Too many of its MPs speak about the election as if it is already lost for Ed Miliband’s comfort.
But Ukip’s continued momentum is a reminder of why the Tories will find it so hard to win a majority in 2015. Combine the rise of Ukip with the SNP surge north of the border and one can see that the parliamentary arithmetic in 2015 is likely to be more complicated than it was in 2010. Influential Liberal Democrats admit that the nightmare scenario is a third party being required to give the coalition its majority in the Commons. With three parties in the government, it would be crowded — and unstable.
Any second Tory/Lib Dem coalition would have to have the approval of both parties. Obtaining this, though, might be easier than people currently think. When pressed about the subject in Glasgow this week, Lib Dem activists have been surprisingly pragmatic. One senses that proportional representation in local government would sweeten the pill sufficiently for many of them. (It would also be good for the Tories, as it would give them a base from which to rebuild in the urban north.) As for Tory MPs, there are undoubtedly some who would oppose a second coalition — but fewer than conventional wisdom suggests.
The British people have a knack for getting the government they want. Next year they might manage to re-elect the coalition despite its absence from the ballot paper.