David Cameron is absolutely right to plan properly for post-2015 election negotiations, as the Daily Telegraph reports today, either with the Liberal Democrats or with other parties (such as the Democratic Unionists, were the numbers to add up). As the paper kindly acknowledges in an editorial, one of my leitmotifs since the 2010 election is that the Conservatives can't win a majority next time round given the distribution of the vote – a problem that the cut in the number of Commons constituencies proposed by the Government, and so ignobly sunk by the Liberal Democrats, would have addressed. If the Commons is hung in 2015, the Prime Minister would have a responsibility to the country to strive to keep it out of Labour's hands.
This means building strong foundations for any consequent coalition – a necessity which, last time round, was compromised by the rush to office of both parties, and their unpreparedness, plus that of Whitehall, for the dance of negotiation which a hung Parliament brings with it. The Liberal Democrats made a hash of their position on tuition fees. And the Conservative leadership was too quick to dump parts of the programme on which it had just fought the election, such as its commitments on inheritance tax and stamp duty. Furthermore, Tory MPs weren't given the chance to vote formally on the coalition deal. It was presented to them at a single meeting of the 1922, and sold to them on a mistaken prospectus.
Cameron told those present that if the Party didn't enter into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Labour would do so, and give the third party the alternative vote without a referendum. He was misinformed, because this information was incorrect. All this rush and inaccuracy has compromised the legitimacy of the Coalition, from a Tory point of view, from the start – an opinion evidently shared by the Prime Minister himself, since under his new plan, in the words of the Telegraph, "backbench Tories would be consulted on the new power-sharing
agreement with the final text being put to them in a vote". Cameron wants them to "dip their hands in blood", as a "senior source" graphically puts it.
A vote, of course, was what their Liberal Democrat counterparts had last time round. Not only did the party's MPs pore over the deal in meeting after meeting, but they had a say on the final deal as part of the party's "triple lock" process. Under its terms, any Coalition programme must be approved not only by its Parliamentarians, but by a special party conference, and the party's federal executive. From a Liberal Democrat perspective, legitimacy was thus locked in to the Government from the start. This helps to explain the relative discipline with which this minor party – one whose MPs had no post-war experience of office – has displayed, in contrast with that of "the natural party of government".
It thus wasn't just Liberal Democrat MPs who were asked to endorse the Coalition deal: it was the party as a whole. This returns us to the present condition of Conservative Party members. They have no power to vote on policy, and their number is falling. (Some 59,000 were declared to the Electoral Commission last year. The real figure will be higher, so it's in the Prime Minister's interest for CCHQ to abandon secrecy, embrace transparency – and announce it.) It is hard to deny a connection between these two facts. Yet there is one instance in which they have no less of a say than the Party's MPs – indeed rather more, in a sense. They take the final decision on who the leader will be.
The Party needs a plan either to revive membership or replace it (or follow a mix of both approaches). Douglas Carswell has put forward some good ideas, and ConservativeHome will return to the subject. A part of should be that all Party members vote on any future Coalition deal. But such a ballot wouldn't just confirm that they are important to Downing Street. It would also copper-bottom the legitimacy for the Party of any future Coalition, precisely the outcome which Cameron seeks. This is why any such arrangement should first be put to Conservative MPs, and if they approve it then to members. That process worked well for the Prime Minister when he fought his leadership contest – an example that he should find encouraging.