Some Liberal Democrats lean to the left, seeing themselves as a social democratic party. Others lean to the right, believing themselves to be a party of liberty, and thus one of the free market. There is little doubt where Jeremy Browne stands. The recently-sacked former Foreign Office former Home Office Minister says in today’s Times (£) that his “ambition for the Lib Dems is to attract the small ‘l’ liberals in the Conservative and Labour parties”. His warning that the Liberal Democrats are in danger of becoming a “shopping trolley that defaults to the left” follows naturally from this view. (Browne insists he is not a Conservative, revealing that he turned down a one-to-one meeting with Grant Shapps to discuss the matter.)
Browne’s views are scarcely a surprise, and that he warns against the Liberal Democrats campaigning against their own government – in other words, the Conservatives – rather than take credit for its achievements, or try to, is par for the course. The Taunton MP may not be a Tory, but he is a natural Conservative partner: were the next election to produce a hung Parliament, he would surely urge the formation of a second blue-yellow coalition. This thought gives rise to an interesting question, which the interview doesn’t tackle – namely, just how hard will the Tory leadership strive to get rid of such LibDem MPs as Browne and David Laws? Wouldn’t they rather see them returned in 2015?
For although that election may produce a Conservative majority, three factors combine to make it unlikely. First, the unity of the left: left-wing LibDem voters have moved to Labour. Second, the division of the right: UKIP is taking more support from the Tories than from other parties. And third, the distribution of the vote, which hands Labour a formidable electoral advantage. In the event of another hung Parliament, much may depend on which LibDem MPs have held their seats, and which have lost them. If such MPs as Laws and Browne aren’t in the Commons, support from within the LibDems for joining forces with the Conservatives will be weakened. Nick Clegg doesn’t seem to want Browne as a Minister. But David Cameron must be torn on whether or not he wants him in the Commons.