When a Conservative leader wishes the LibDems well in a three-way marginal by-election, then what is going on? Andrew Gilligan’s piece
today shows that the Conservative campaign there is muted, and my colleague Melissa Kite reported earlier that Cameron personally called off
the hunt supporters, Vote OK, who were planning to boost the Tory campaign. Little wonder that Conservative MPs are beginning to smell a rat. They are being told this is the cohabitation of rival parties; in the Daily Telegraph tomorrow
, I ask if this is actually a merger.
From the start of this coalition, I’ve been struck by the differences between the coalition in Westminster, and that I witnessed during my tour of duty in the Scottish Parliament. The Holyrood scenario was an alliance of two structurally separate parties, with their own spin teams and distinct identities. When they had to fight the Glasgow Anniesland by-election, after Dewar’s death, it did not cause an identity crisis within the coalition. They just did it. There was the odd sign saying “Lib Dem supporter, voting Labour” which seemed about as sane as “cat, barking.” The LibDems forced the Tories into 4th place in the 2003 Holyrood election: coalition augmented their stature and identity. Coalition with the Tories has knocked LibDem support into single digits.
Why? I suspect it is because the parties have become too close: they have behaved as merged parties, not coalition partners. The word ‘coalition’ has become synonymous with government now, becoming a proper noun. The phrase ‘ConDems’ is used by the Mirror to attack the government. They are seen as a joint entity. And rightly so: Cameron has not built an alliance of two parties with differing traditions. He has moved the two parties into a blender and flicked the ‘on’ switch. Everything is merged: the spin team, the departments, even the ‘political’ Cabinet has LibDems there. Where Blair and Brown used No10 to advertise the Labour Party, Cameron seldom mentions his party. 'Conservative', the C-word, is dropping out of the national vocabulary: it wasn’t even used at the Conservatives' annual conference.
Why so close? Part of the reason must be the Westminster adversarial system. The Scottish Parliament is one of these dull, lifeless semi-circe parliaments where the various blocs sit next to each other, press buttons and pass chocolate to each other. Westminster is a bear-pit, with two sides placed precisely two swords' length apart. And this is deliberate: after it took a direct hit in the war, Churchill was asked if he wanted to rebuild in a consensus semi-circle, to reflect what was then coalition politics. No, he said, let it be two sides fighting. That’s how we like it.
Cameron’s strategy has been to stress complete unity. There were no LibDem policies, no Tory policies: everything was a coalition policy, and defended as such. Even tuition fees. And tensions did not erupt: from welfare reform to school reform. There have been battles, but they are blue-on-blue. Critics of Clegg, myself included, have been impressed at his reforming credentials and the way he has taken the intellectual fight to Labour - on its poisonous definition of ‘fairness’ and on the progressive case for cuts. Unity may have been foisted on the two parties in government, but they have acted as one.
By-elections expose the problem with this ‘blender’ strategy. If you support David Cameron’s government, why vote LibDem? If you don’t support it, why vote LibDem? So we’re now seeing a bit of back-pedalling, with both Cameron and Clegg trying to pencil in divinding lines these were so keen to elide after the coalition. Clegg’s New Year Message was a rather panicked plea directed to his activists, listing LibDem achievements.
Cameron now seems to be giving the LibDems as much help as he decently can, allowing the abolition of control orders to be spun as a Clegg victory and he’ll doubtless present Lords reform as a great concession extracted from a defeated Conservative Party by the rat-like cunning of Clegg. This does not wash with the voters, because they see a united party. On Question Time, you used to have Conservative and LibDems on the panel. Now, just one. After a while, the message gets through: these guys are the same.
So why not keep it that way? Sir John Major wants the coalition to last ten years, as do one in five grassroot members. But the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers are getting increasingly anxious. Yes, the LibDems may be screwed - just look at the projected share of seats. But does that mean the Conservatives have to incorporate them? A vote pact would have at its heart the assumption that the Tories could not win on their own. Is Ed Miliband really so scary?
Clegg has seen his poll rating drop to 9 percent, but comforts himself in that a third of LibDem voters are converts, who came to the party since the election. This, he hopes, will allow him to rebuild - and he has five years to do it. Perhaps he is right, but I know plenty of Conservatives who think he hasn't a chance. And even if new voters emerge, it won't save the various LibDem MPs in student-rich seats. Or those, like Chris Huhne, who stood explicitly on a anti-Tory platform. For these MPs, some kind of non-aggression pact is their only hope. I can understand Cameron feeling sympathetic, feeling an instinct to declare a truce with his partners. But to offer any kind of electoral pact is the point where a coalition becomes a merger. The LibDems and the Tories would be moving towards the kind of relationship that the Christian Democrats in Germany have with the Christian Social Union of Bavaria: two allies, who have effectively merged, but keep different identities for electoral reasons.
A stepping stone from coalition to merger came in Cabinet before Christmas when Andrew Mitchell said they should do everything possible to help the LibDems in Oldham East. No one disagreed. Events are putting the two parties down that road: Cameron is perhaps the first Tory leader in history to worry about how he can bolster the LibDem rating. Helping each other in government is one thing - helping each other in elections is quite another. And this is why backbench Tories are worried. For all the protests to the contrary, Cameron looks very much like a man who is playing for keeps.