Alex Massie

Montgomerie’s Law & the Coalition’s Future

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Tim Montgomerie makes a prediction:

Call it Montgomerie's Law of the Coalition (launched in The Times (£)). This Coalition is heading for breakdown or it's heading Leftwards. The Left of the Liberal Democrats will demand an end to the Coalition if Nick Clegg doesn't get more and more concessions from David Cameron.

If the Coalition fails it will be broken by Liberal Democrats in left-leaning constituencies. Think Scotland, Wales, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sheffield, Liverpool. Think Ming Campbell, Charles Kennedy, Simon Hughes.

Well, maybe. And, sure, the government is not likely to tilt to the right. But that doesn't mean it can't maintain its current, moderate course. Yes, that means there will be moments when the Tory leadership seems to be doing more than it absolutely must to protect the Liberal Democrats. But that's what big brothers are supposed to do. It's when the junior partner feels ignored or taken for granted that it begins to think about walking away from the deal. In those circumstances, however, the senior partner shoulders at least some of the responsibility for the breakdown. Usually it takes more than one party to end a marriage.

However, the Lib Dems have no incentive for walking away. None at all. Even if next year's elections in Scotland and Wales prove bloody that reinforces the need to hang together with the Tories until 2015 and, everyone hopes, happier economic times. The alternatives seem still more likely to result in political disaster.

Even so, I wonder if conventional wisdom is overstating the threat to Lib Dem fortunes. After all, the ib Dem vote is a pretty resilient thing and something that's stuck with the party through the years when it had little to no prospect of sitting in government. It would be perverse for voters to abandon a party that is, at long last, actually getting the chance to implement some of its policies.

Indeed, that's been the case in Scotland. The Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood was not especially popular (nor, though this is a different matter, especially successful) but this didn't produce any significant drop in Lib Dem support. Now it may be that coalition government at Westminster with the Scary Tories might change everything but this is far from certain.

Not least because even though many Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs come from the old SDP-wing of the party they do not represent left-leaning constituencies. A Liberal Democrat vote in Scotland is not a proxy vote for Labour, it is an anti-Labour vote (and, often, an anti-West of Scotland vote which is nearly, but not quite, the same thing) as well as an anti-SNP vote and and anti-Conservative vote. Among their Westminster MPs, only Edinburgh West and East Dunbartonshire are Lib Dem vs Labour contests. More often, when you find a Lib Dem MP you'll find Labour polling less than 15%.

Which means, actually, there's ample room for an electoral pact in 2015. Why shouldn't Lib Dem voters in, say, Perth or Angus vote Tory in return for Tory voters in Edinburgh West or East Dunbartonshire or Edinburgh South voting Liberal Democrat? Between them, the coalition parties won 35% of the vote in Scotland this year but just 20% of the seats. Distributing this support more efficiently could, theoretically at least, benefit both parties. 

If that's the case in Scotland it seems likely to be the case in northern England too. Why shouldn't Tories in Lib Dem held seats in Liverpool or Sheffield support their government partners in 2015? This can be done - surely! - even if the voting system remains FPTP. It might require some boldness and imagination but Cameron and Clegg have shown that they lack little in those departments.

This might, I suppose, dismay the Tory right some of whom might not be too upset if the coalition were to fall apart. They should be careful what they wish for. Given the prevailing economic conditions it is far from obvious that the electorate would think that swinging to the right is the proper response to the collapse of a moderate Conservative/Liberal government. The Tories are supposed to be a pragmatic party: that means they need to take care of the Lib Dems because in helping them they're also helping their own medium and long-term prospects.

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.