Bernard Jenkin is MP for Harwich and North Essex.
So electoral reform has been lost. Changing the voting system for many LibDems was the sole justification of entering into coalition at all, let alone with the Tories who many LibDems dislike far more than Labour. But Nick Clegg rightly does not consider that all is dust and ashes. His meteoric political career need not be destined to crash ignominiously. His career as leader of what is currently called the Liberal Democrat Party may well be limited, but his role as a senior figure in a broad Conservative government, along with some of his more modern and able LibDem colleagues, could yet be enhanced.
In May last year, let us recall how two young men, entering into the prime of their professional lives, found themselves within reach of everything they had worked for: power. It was clear in meetings with David Cameron at that time that he saw taking power as the imperative. I imagine that Nick Clegg was of the same mind. David Cameron launched the “big ask”. Nick Clegg responded. It was immediately obvious that the only question to be resolved was the terms. Electoral “reform” was the crunch issue. For David Cameron, this was a gamble which has paid off. But did Clegg ever really believe that he could rally the country around the despised alternative vote system, which he had personally so derided as a “miserable compromise”? In fact, even the Electoral Reform Society, which funded the Yes campaign, had to suspend its anti-AV policy in order to support it.
They had to find a “clean skin”, the capable and charming Katie Ghose, to lead the campaign – the only significant person in the campaign who was not compromised by previous public hostility to AV. She had previously had no campaign experience. Clegg would be a complete fool to have entered the coalition banking on winning such a referendum – and Clegg is no fool. So the last thing the David Cameron should now do is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and start to make concessions to his rivals in office.
When David Cameron appears before the 1922 Committee next Wednesday, he will no doubt receive a rapturous ovation after such an astonishingly successful day at the polls, but he will also be left in little doubt that this is a moment for consolidating his position, not selling out and appeasement. This is a widely held view across the Conservative Party in the country as well as in Parliament.
And the last thing above all which the nation needs is the next chapter of Westminster navel-gazing, in the form of a protracted debate about the future of the House of Lords. The nation has just voted to punish those who propose change for which there is no genuine popular demand.
The Conservatives and David Cameron have emerged triumphant on the right side of that debate. He must not take us down another myopic political culdesac. Lords reform with PR or not, but without a referendum, would be a far worse retreat of the professional politicians into the Westminster village than the AV referendum.
Official Conservative policy already puts us on the wrong side of the debate, being in favour of a (largely) elected upper house, despite the fact that 99 per cent of voters are unmoved by obscure constitutional issues, and that most Conservatives remain wedded to the sound principle, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”. The fact is that our extraordinary and possibly anachronistic revising chamber does exactly the job it is required to do. A more democratically legitimate House would exercise its power far more freely and could throw the whole constitution into a new crisis.
David Cameron rightly told Conservative Peers before he became leader that he regarded Lords Reform as a “third term” priority – which is code for “let’s forget the whole thing”. If he wants to prevent his entire government becoming paralysed for years, as it tries to force the legislation through, then he should tell Nick to drop this pointlessly divisive issue.
Most voters would be left wondering once again why their politicians are spending so much of their energy and effort on a matter so irrelevant to the nation’s real priorities. And to attempt such a huge change without a referendum would be yet another triumph of the political class over the real concerns of the voters. The conversation which Cameron needs to have with Clegg should be about real power, not a fantasy constitution. The offer we Conservatives need to make is a permanent home for fugitives from the shattered LibDems, not least to Nick Clegg himself.
I have some profound differences on some issues with Nick Clegg, particularly over constitutional issues and the EU. But there are already others in the Conservative Party who hold the same views as him. The Conservative Party has itself always been a broad coalition. I recently remarked to a senior and influential minister that if we can have Ken Clarke in our party, surely we can have Nick Clegg. He retorted (as a joke of course!), “I wouldn’t set the bar that low.”
We have welcomed Liberal refugees from previous coalitions in the early part of last Century. The Conservatives included many who sat as “National Liberals” well into the 1950s but who accepted the Conservative Whip and faught elections alongside their Conservative Allies. They had an enclave which was respected, but the point is that the Conservative Party continued to evolve as the Conservative Party.
Now is not the moment to surrender more Conservative principles, but it is the time to offer political sanctuary, recognising that, in Disraeli’s words, “The Conservative Party is a national party, or it is nothing.” That also means rebuilding a Scottish dimension to Westminster politics to address the new Scottish Nationalist challenge to the very existence of the United Kingdom. It has become evident that there is far more agreement than disagreement in the Cameron-Clegg axis – not just about social issues, but on fundamental questions like public spending control, getting the NHS reforms right and maintaining the Union.
But there is also disagreement, on matters like the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU, the role of the European Court of Human Rights. We cannot allow the LibDems to divert the Conservatives from these absolutely fundamental questions, which do touch the consciousness of voters. We should invite the LibDems to take part in the debate, but not to divert the Conservative Party from its historic purposes. That would be the tail wagging the dog.