Many a Conservative MP will spend the summer dreaming happily about what the party should do in office once it has freed itself from the shackles of coalition. Few even consider the painful truth — that the coalition party most likely to survive the next election is not the Conservatives but the Lib Dems.
Imagine the misery of watching Nick Clegg disappear through the door of No. 10 to begin his second term as deputy PM — this time under Ed Miliband. But it could be worse: it could be Vince Cable, who seems to have decided (in spite of declaring himself too old at 64 to stand for the Lib Dem leadership in 2007) that he fancies a crack at the job in his early seventies.
For ambitious Tories, the possibility of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition after the next election would be many times worse than an outright Labour victory. In spite of the likely collapse of the Lib Dem share of the popular vote, it would present the impression that the Tories had been rejected and Lib Dems rewarded for five years of coalition. Moreover, it would create a sense of normality about coalitions in Britain, and open the way to yet another Lib Dem bid to introduce proportional representation into Westminster elections — only this time in the form of a system which suited Labour, too.
Never mind that the Lib Dems are bumping along on at 10 per cent in the polls; a Labour-Lib Dem coalition after 2015 is more likely than an outright victory, thinks Philip Cowley, professor of parliamentary government at the University of Nottingham. ‘I think they will poll better than 10 per cent, and at the local level they enjoy an “incumbency bonus”. The number of seats they hold after the next election will not fall in line with their popular vote.’
It is a message which has yet to get through to Tories. When polled by ConservativeHome in March, 23 per cent of Conservative voters believed that they would win an outright majority at the next election. At the time this was presented as a sign of low self-confidence, but in fact it is a bizarrely high percentage to believe in something which seems, in any cool-headed analysis, to be virtually impossible. History teaches that parties do not increase their share of the popular vote while in office: even Mrs Thatcher’s share was eroded, in spite of her racking up a majority (thanks to Labour’s weakness) that was 100 stronger in 1983 than 1979. There is little reason to think that this time around will be different.
David Cameron was elected with only 36 per cent of the popular vote in 2010; he cannot afford to lose a sliver of that. Some Tory MPs are completely divorced from reality. Take Peter Bone, the member for Wellingborough, who recently advocated that his party withdraw from the coalition and form a minority administration so that it can bring forward a British bill of rights and legislation to restrain migration from inside as well as outside the EU (which would of course be illegal for as long as Britain remains a member of the EU). Both proposals would require very large Conservative majorities to overcome internal Tory opposition, let alone overcome opposition at large.
This delusional mentality goes right the way to the top. The Prime Minister’s speech on further restrictions on welfare last month, which included a proposal to withdraw housing benefit from the under-25s, has merits as a policy and has wide appeal to conservatives. But what is the point in delivering proposals which he knows full well the Lib Dems will refuse to support? Two days later Michael Gove did the same with leaked proposals to bring back O-levels. Again, it is a policy which will warm the heart of many a conservative, but it is one which the Tories have zero chance of introducing so long as they remain in coalition with the Lib Dems; indeed, it was struck down by Nick Clegg the next day.
There will be a time for writing a manifesto for the next election which sets the Conservatives apart from the Lib Dems, but it isn’t now. There are three years to go before an election, and the Conservatives will be doomed if they waste them dreaming about being a majority government. Parties in government win or lose re-election predominantly on their record, and that is going to look pretty thin in this case unless Tories try making a success of the coalition. And this means coming up with proposals which do have a chance of commanding Lib Dem support.
It shouldn’t be difficult to achieve this: there is after all a wide overlap between the interests of most conservatives. One of the most successful ‘conservative’ policies of this government was actually a Lib Dem manifesto promise: raising the tax-free allowance in stages to £10,000 a year. Surely there are more policies to be devised along these lines.
What about working towards the eventual abolition of National Insurance contributions — which as everyone knows are a blatant tax on jobs? Merging income tax with NI contributions is a policy which George Osborne did once float but rapidly abandoned. He should have kept on with it: it is pro-business, means lower taxes for millions on low salaries and would mark a big distinction between Labour and the Conservatives, with most Lib Dems likely to come down on the Tories’ side. There is a glaring need to offer something for the vast and growing constituency of young people who feel disenfranchised by capitalism because they can’t see how they could ever afford to buy a home of their own. What about reserving most new housing for owner-occupiers, preventing it being bought up by armies of investors, ensuring that prices remained affordable? It would annoy some Conservatives — the buy-to-let lobby — but it would gain far more potential Conservative voters, and it is something with which the Lib Dems would surely have sympathy.
Either the Tories stop carping about the Lib Dems and achieve something with them, or face going to the country for re-election as a debating society rather than as a competent party of government.