Alex Massie

Loving the Liberal Democrats in a Hung Britain

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Over at ConservativeHome Paul Goodman suggests that Nick Clegg be invited to address the Conservative Party Conference this year and, in general, that the Tories need to do more to get to know their colleagues in government. He's right. And here, via John Rentoul, is John Curtice to help explain why.

Professor Curtice suggests that this most recent election ought not to be considered a freakish result and that even if the voting system remains unaltered hung parliaments are probably as likely as not for the foreseeable future. If that's the case - and even with redrawn constituency boundaries it seems quite probable that at least some of the factors he mentions (the decline in the number of true marginals, the way the Lib Dem vote is spread and so on) will continue to nudge parliament towards a hanging.

If we accept that this is the case then the argument in favour of treating the Liberal Democrats well - and granting them greater influence than their weight of parliamentary numbers might indicate appropriate - is strengthened still further. Because it's not just about this government, it's also a question of future governments. If - a mighty if for sure but stick around - this partnership goes well, it will be much easier to form Tory-Liberal ministries in the future. Conversely, if it ends badly (most probably on account of Tory arrogance or insensitivity) then such efforts will be made more difficult than might otherwise be the case. Memories of the Camerlegg Ministry will become exceedingly important and, I warrant, much more important than many MPs of either party imagine right now.

Nevertheless, if Curtice (and Rentoul) are right and hung parliaments become more common than they have been in the past as we continue to try and squeeze three parties into a system designed for two then the prize becomes getting to dance with the Liberal Democrats more often than the competition.

Previously many pundits - and politicians - had assumed that the Labour-Liberal Democrat arrangement was the obvious fit. But now the Tories have first mover advantage and can overturn that presumption. Assuming, again, the coalition holds, it will be vastly easier to form a Tory-Liberal alliance in the future than it would have been to come to such an arrangement had the Lib Dems already become accustomed to sharing power with Labour. That really could have been a nightmare scenario for the Conservative party - especially if future parliaments were elected using the Alternative Vote.

Now, however, it is the Conservatives who have that advantage. I understand that there are ministers close to Cameron who are prepared to make it quite clear that no view has been taken on campaigning against the Lib Dems in 2015. In other words, there are some Tories prepared to at least war-game the notion of campaigning on a coalition ticket in five years time. The significance is that this is not being ruled out immediately. And from this one can construct a Tory case for embracing the Alternative Vote...

This may be thought to be getting ahead of ourselves but, actually, it's simply sensible to imagine these things. Again, exploiting first mover advantage Cameron has the opportunity to flip British politics on its head, making a Tory-Liberal alliance the "natural" or default presumption when all other matters remain equal.

This may not seem a great prize to some but, actually, it's the difference between spending more time in government than on the opposition benches or, you know, not. The party that dances with the Lib Dems (or, I suppose, some other combination of parties) more often than the other party is going to be in power most of the time.

If two out of every three coalitions were Toy-Lib Dem alliances and 50% of parliaments were hung then you might find that this makes the difference between the Tories being in power 60% of the time and their sitting in office just 40% of the time. (This assumes, for the sake or argument and simplicity that the 50% of non-hung parliaments are divided equally between Conservative and Labour majorities).

If Curtice is wrong and hung parliaments remain unusual then the Tories lose nothing of great significance from this current arrangement, but if the splendid Professor is correct and hung parliaments are as likely as not in the future then the future geography of British politics is up for grabs.

Which is also another way of saying that while boldĀ  - if also forced upon him by circumstance - this coalition is fraught with danger for both leaders but, especially, David Cameron. Because if it ends in disaster it could prove just as disastrous for conservatism as its success might be for the left.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.