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This has been a fractious year for the coalition, during
which Nick Clegg's evident discomfort with his Conservative colleagues has
gradually developed into full-blown resistance. His extraordinary face-pulling
and muttering during the Autumn Statement, at the point when George Osborne
dismissed the case for a mansion tax, showed that the Deputy Prime Minister no
longer considered himself bound by collective responsibility. So it was no
surprise this week when Mr Clegg announced his new approach to governing in
coalition, in which he wants to see the Liberal Democrats openly differentiate
themselves from the Conservatives.

His reckoning seems to be that, with a wipe-out at the polls
looming for his party, he will risk breaking the rules of coalition if it's the
only way to retain his party's identity. The obvious danger, of course, is that
it simply brings forward the date of electoral meltdown. It's hard to believe
that the new differentiation will garner enough votes to save the Liberal
Democrats from oblivion. But it plainly gives official sanction to a policy of
non-cooperation for the remainder of the coalition's period in government. If
the House of Lords/boundary changes tit-for-tat debacle marked the end of the
beginning of the coalition, then this speech surely represents the beginning of
the end.


What, then, are the challenges and opportunities for the
Conservatives in the time left to them in government? I would argue that they
should grasp the opportunity to differentiate their policies. Three reasons
spring to mind. First and foremost, for the Conservatives' survival as a
political force, it is essential that they present a consistent, determined and
positive case for their own policies, rather than  allowing them to be defined in negative terms
by the Liberal Democrats. Whether on health, welfare, Europe, family policy or
– crucially – growth policies, Conservative ministers have too often appeared
boxed in by the Liberal Democrat narrative. The process of negative definition
contributed to the policy disaster that was the 2012 Budget, with George
Osborne forced onto the defensive over tax cuts and seemingly unable to explain
how cutting tax rates leads to increased revenue (despite the evidence on both
the 50p tax and higher rates of stamp duty). The Autumn Statement may have been
superficially more plausible but the compromise measures unveiled will have
minimal impact on the economic challenges ahead.

Mr Clegg's speech on Monday brought his party's negative
campaigning tactics into the open, characterising Conservative ideas on Europe
and on welfare as fantasy and extremism, by contrast with his party of
“sensible” centrists. Conservatives need to fight back, but in order to make
the positive case for their own policies they must, of course, have a clear
idea of what those policies are. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor
have too often seemed on uncertain ground here. Preoccupation with fringe
issues like gay marriage, David Cameron's butterfly habit of flitting from one
subject (and speech) to another without developing a central theme, and a
tendency to make eye-catching announcements that are subsequently dropped or
even reversed, have made it difficult for even the most loyal supporter to
grasp exactly what Conservatives currently stand for.

One Conservative minister who leaves his audience in little doubt
about what he believes in is Michael Gove, whose interview in the Christmas
edition of the Spectator
should be read by every Conservative who is
disheartened by the party's current performance. When asked by Fraser Nelson what
the Conservatives must do to win the next election, he replies that there are
Tories who are concerned with issues like whether “we need to have a better
ground game in Worcestershire – and that’s great, I’m glad there are people
like that. But my approach is to find the biggest issues that we face, make an
argument that we think is right, try to carry as many people with us as
possible.”

It's a great interview, packed with good sense and
conviction politics. And the beauty of it is that, in Mr Gove's case, it's not
just a soundbite to cheer the Tory faithful at the end of a trying year. The
Education Secretary has earned the right to make bold statements of confidence
in Conservative beliefs because he has spent the last two and a half years
putting them into practice, notwithstanding the constraints of coalition. Which
brings me to my second argument in favour of articulating and then pursuing
real Conservative policies: it might actually be more effective than the
politics of compromise. Michael Gove has a clear agenda, a strong minded chief
of staff and a highly motivated team who share his aims. As a result, the Liberal
Democrats in his team, and across government, have – most of the time – been
carried along. As they have discovered, it's much harder to undermine a
minister who knows exactly where he is going, who is always ready to explain –
courteously but firmly – what his objectives are, and how his Conservative
worldview informs those objectives.

My third and final reason for maintaining that the
Conservatives will gain from boldness is that the central purpose of the
coalition is palpably failing. The justification offered for entering into
shared government was that, together, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats
would take the tough decisions necessary to eliminate the deficit, slash the
national debt and restore the economy to growth. But the reality is that continual
horse trading between two partners with very different ideologies has resulted
in stagnation. Significant cuts in current spending, pro-growth tax cuts, job
deregulation and faster welfare reform are all necessary components of economic
revival. The Chancellor needs to be able to argue freely for these measures,
explaining to voters that he is unhappy with the lack of progress so far. He
must assure them that, unhindered by coalition, a Conservative government would
be making much greater headway to recovery. The danger at present is that Mr
Osborne and his party will go to the country at the next election with the
economy still flatlining and the nation deeper in debt than ever. If they wait
for the publication of the election manifesto, it will be too late to “make an
argument and carry people with them” (to paraphrase the Education Secretary).
Did the Conservatives not learn from their experience in 2010 that, as Lynton
Crosby memorably puts it, the pig cannot be fattened on market day?

As the festive season approaches, Nick Clegg has made a
Christmas offer to his party: rock the boat if you like, it's in your party's
interests to do so. This open invitation to mischief establishes beyond doubt
that we now have a coalition in name only. If the Conservatives do not seize
this chance to present their own policies openly and confidently to the
electorate, they cannot expect to gain a mandate to govern alone.

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