When considering the future of the newly-minted Conservative-Liberal coalition – the first full marriage between the two oldest parties in British politics in 90 years – it is worth recalling what happened the last time the couple walked down the aisle. Not because history necessarily repeats itself, but because human nature – particularly human political nature – remains much the same. And the gravitational pull that drew the two parties together then – and eventually dragged them apart – may well come round again.
That pull is the weight of the membership of the two parties, both in the country at large and among their MPs. For it was backbench discontent that brought down the coalition in 1922, and it is backbench discontent that is the most potent threat to the future of the civil partnership solemnised and celebrated between David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the Downing Street rose garden.
Back in 1916 it was a Liberal Prime Minister – David Lloyd George – who sat in Downing Street and a Tory party who had been denied power for a decade, and were hungry for the fruits of office they considered theirs by hereditary right. And then – as now – it was the Tories who had the numbers. The Liberals were fatally split between a majority who sided with the deposed veteran Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, and a minority who threw in their lot with the dynamic new PM, Lloyd George.
It was a Conservative coup that had brought Lloyd George to power in December 1916 in the midst of the First World War. Hardline Tories, egged on by the staunchly patriotic Northcliffe Press in the shape of The Times and the Daily Mail, organised the ousting of the laid-back and frequently alcoholically refreshed 'Squiffy' Asquith, whom they considered incapable of winning the war. Lloyd George was elevated to the Premiership by the same Tories who had once hated and feared him for his savage assaults on their wealth and privileges as a pre-war taxing and spending radical Chancellor.
Now the Conservatives put aside their distrust of the little Welsh lawyer as they recognised that only he had the Churchillian dynamism and drive essential to galvanising the nation and turning it into an efficient war-making machine. But another machine – the then powerful Liberal Party organisation in the country – stood by Asquith and spurned Lloyd George for putting his ambition before party loyalty and Liberal principles.
Herein lies a warning to Nick Clegg, often seen as a leader far to the Right of the mass of left-leaning Liberal Democrat activists. By getting into bed with the Tories as enthusiastically as he eased between the sheets of one of his mistresses, Lloyd George – dubbed 'the Goat' for his randiness – fatally separated himself from Puritanical, Nonconformist Liberal opinion which, just as today, disapproved of the Tories as the nasty party of Lords, masters and landlords. If Clegg makes the Conservative party the 31st notch on his bedpost and embraces Toryism too closely, there is a serious danger that he too may be shorn of his party's support.
The partnership between pragmatic, Lloyd Georgist Liberalism and nationalist Toryism – like the initial plaudits for Clegg-Cameronism – started strongly. Lloyd George, with a secretariat of bright young men operating out of a series of sheds in the same back garden of No.10 where Nick and Dave billed and cooed, dragooned the nation for war. Strikes were suppressed in vital war industries; militant pacifists were jailed; both military and industrial conscription was introduced. A certain Winston Churchill – then a youngish Liberal – was brought in as Munitions Minister (against angry Tory protests) to speed up shell production with characteristic energy, and eventually the war was won.
In the euphoria of victory the Coalition went to the country as a united front – but maintaining their separate party identities – in the 'Coupon Election' of December 1918. For the first time women had the right to vote (another Coalition achievement). The Coalition won an overwhelming mandate. Looked at more closely, however, the results were a disaster for the Liberals. They and the Tories had begun the war with a rough parity of seats – 260 apiece. Now, with the Liberals fatally split into Asquithian and Lloyd George factions, the Tories had a whopping 338 seats, and Lloyd George's Liberals just 136. Asquith managed a derisory 26, but the new kids on the political block – the Labour Party – had won 59. The future of the Left in British politics did not lie with the Liberals. While they had been schmoozing with the Tories, an intruder had crept in and nicked their radical clothes.
Though often derided as 'the stupid party', the Tories did not fail to do the electoral maths. Although their party's leaders remained under the Welsh wizard's spell, the backbench MPs realised that they had the power to make or break Lloyd George. From henceforth he ruled only with their permission. Similarly, today, can it be long before backbench Tories begin to complain that with 307 seats to the Lib Dems' 57, the yellow tail is wagging the blue dog? And herein lies the danger for David Cameron, already derided as a mushy pink-green liberal by his party's Right-wing: how long will the mass of traditionalist Tory MPs put up with measures they regard as insufficiently Conservative just to please their leader's new best mates?
In 1918 they put up with it for three and a half years. They allowed Lloyd George to go to Versailles and strut the world's stage as he signed a Treaty creating a new post-war order. They even let him come to terms with Irish rebels and create an Irish Free State partially independent of British rule. But in 1922 their patience finally ran out. In July, their anger spilled over at a backbenchers' meeting at the Tory Carlton Club, when the party's new rising star, Stanley Baldwin, damned Lloyd George with faint praise as a 'Dynamic force'. But, Baldwin added, lethally "A dynamic force is a very terrible thing; it may crush you, but it is not necessarily right". The Tory rank and file voted overwhelmingly to end the Coalition, and at the peak of his powers Lloyd George was out of Downing Street forever that same night. Clegg and Cameron have been warned: gather the rosebuds while you may, but ignore your parties at your peril.