I’m tempted to cover Sir* Menzies Campbell’s face with kisses.
Thank you, Sir Menzies! By setting out five tests for Gordon Brown – and confirming that the Chancellor, if he meets them, “will have changed direction, and embraced Liberal Democracy” – Sir Menzies has effectively penned a key Conservative slogan for the next election: “Vote Liberal – and get Brown”.
And just to confirm that he meant what he said, “a party official suggested it was the first indication that Sir Menzies would be interested in forming a coalition if the Lib Dems held the balance of power”.
Why on earth did he do it? Why did the Liberal leader tell Britain’s voters what the Westminster village already knows – namely, that the Liberal Democrats would never consent to form a coalition with the Conservatives? (After all, Sir Menzies didn’t offer “five tests” to David Cameron, did he?)
Complex and convoluted answers will no doubt be offered. Some will no doubt claim that Sir Menzies’ words were part of some cunning plan to win back voters who supported the Liberals at the last election but have since then drifted to Labour.
I doubt it. More Liberal Democrat MPs have the Conservatives in second place than Labour. They held or won their seats in 2005 by attracting centre-right voters. There’s already a limit to the number of Labour votes that they can squeeze (especially with core Labour voters looking to return to or stick with Brown). There’s no point in alarming these centre-right voters by reminding them that in a hung Parliament Sir Menzies would angle for a coalition with the next Labour Prime Minister.
My explanation’s simple. Sir Menzies, like the late John Smith, is a centre-left lawyer from north of the border. And like John Smith and like Donald Dewar, the Liberal leader is of the generation of centre-left Scottish politicians who worked together to bring about devolution.
The fruits of devolution, of course, already include a Lab-Lib coalition in Scotland. Lib-Labbery and Lab-Libbery is, as the cliché has it, in Sir Menzies’s DNA. And can any ConservativeHome reader name another senior left-of-centre Scottish MP who, like the Liberal leader, sits for a Scottish seat, and was also instrumental in forcing through devolution? Clue for the baffled: have a look at the top Ministerial slot on the Treasury website. We should all want to kiss Sir Menzies for spelling his plans out so clearly.
All this puts ConservativeHome’s recent “Warning: Lib-Con Pact ahead”
items in perspective. At which point, let me get a ritual sentence out
of the way. Here it is: naturally, I believe that the Conservative
Party can win the next election. With some recent polls clocking us in
at about 40 per cent, and with an election perhaps as long as three
years away, that’s a statement of the obvious.
Another such statement is that a hung Parliament next time round is
possible. One or two Conservatives have already floated the idea of
Con-Lib co-operation in such an event – citing some common ground on
civil liberties, pensions, localism, and the environment.
They’ve a point. At Westminster, Con-Lib co-operation already takes
place, at a small c conservative estimate, at least once a week –
namely, when Conservative MPs walk through the lobbies with Liberal
Democrat MPs to vote against the Government. I’m less likely to find
myself in the same lobby with Sir Menzies than I am with David Cameron,
but it’s been known to happen.
But co-operation doesn’t mean coalition. After all, consider what
draws Conservatives and Liberals away from each other, as well as what
brings them together. As well as civil liberties, consider crime and
sentencing. As well as pensions, mull over proportional
representation. As well as localism, think about patriotism and
foreign policy. And as well as the environment, there’s Europe –
that’s to say, policy on the European Union.
In other words, for every issue on which Conservatives and Liberal
Democrats agree, there’s likely to be another (or more than one other)
on which they disagree. For every Orange Booker, there’s at least one
Simon Hughes. And then there are the views of our activists to
consider. Yes, in a few councils – where foreign policy, on the whole,
isn’t an issue – Con-Lib coalitions can be found.
But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. One the whole, the
Liberal activists don’t like us. And have you tried asking the average
Conservative activist what he or she thinks of the red-in-red areas,
blue-in-blue areas, council tax-raising, service-botching,
Focus-distributing, gallery-playing, pose-striking, bandwagon-jumping
and truth-bending average Liberal Democrat activist? These mutual
relations are not the stuff of which coalitions are made.
I can just about stretch my imagination to conceive of a pact at
Westminster in which the Liberal Democrats don’t bring down a minority
Conservative Government. But it would have to be a pact on our terms,
not theirs. No local income tax. No kneejerk attacks on our most
important ally abroad. No proportional representation. No European
constitution. Having upped our numbers at an election while Labour
downed theirs, we’d be in a good position to dictate terms.
What’s now clear, though, is that even if my imagination can be
stretched in this way, Sir Menzies’ can’t. (“Are the Conservatives up
to this same challenge? Of course not.”) Just as David Steel shored
up Jim Callaghan in the Lib-Lab pact of the late 1970s, so Sir Menzies
wants to prop up another briefly-serving Labour Prime Minister.
I read that Ed Davey, Sir Menzies’ “Chief of Staff”, is running around
trying to limit the damage. No wonder. The Conservatives are second
in Mr Davey’s seat – as they are in David Laws’, and Vince Cable’s and
Nick Clegg’s. If the Orange Bookers are unhappy with Sir Menzies’
left-leaning policies as well as with his tactical acumen, they know
what to do.
*Footnote: Sir Menzies is apparently uncomfortable about being
referred to as Sir Menzies. He should be made uncomfortable at every