There have been two significant political stories recently that have caught my eye with respect to Conservative internal democracy. I have found them particularly interesting given my background as a Lib Dem member and activist.
The first was the confirmation last month that Lords reform was being dropped for this parliament. The second was the reports this week that pressure is being exerted on David Cameron from his backbenches to rethink his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow.
Both of these issues have something in common. They are policies that were in the Conservative manifesto*.
It is surely quite strange that nearly 100 of the party's MPs were willing to vote against Lords reform. When you include ministers who were likely supporting the measures under sufferance it wouldn't at all surprise me if less than half of the Parliamentary Conservative Party in the Commons actually supported the bill. There appears to be a similar groundswell forming against the Heathrow policy.
How has this come about? Surely a manifesto should reflect the view of the members of the party it purports to represent?
But the Conservative manifesto is written by senior people within the party and their advisers and then essentially presented as a fait accompli. If the MPs and PPCs don't like parts of it, essentially it is tough luck. They could of course have refused to stand as a Conservative candidate if they felt strongly enough but given the FPTP system that is never very likely to happen, as an "Independent Conservative" candidate would just split the vote and probably let one of their opponents in. The problem is it leaves everyone else wondering where on earth one stands with respect to these commitments.
There is also another important point here. Straight after the negotiating teams finished the coalition agreement, the Lib Dems executed their "triple lock" mechanism in order to get the assent of the party's Federal Executive, the parliamentary party and ultimately voting members at a hastily arranged special conference. This ensured there was buy-in from the party membership regarding the agreement and the fact that the votes were so overwhelming made it clear the party at large was "giving its permission" to execute the programme of government.
This process has not been without its problems and I am sure if the Lib Dem party had its time over again there would be things done differently. (Tuition fees anyone?) But fundamentally the membership of the party were given a chance to ratify or reject the programme and they chose to back it. So when times have been tough the leadership of the party has had this legitimacy to fall back on.
However the Conservative party had no such process. Indeed I recall bemusement at all levels of the party when the smaller partner went through this. It was seen as a sandal-eating, muesli- wearing curiosity; unnecessary and self-indulgent.
I do feel though that if the larger partner had gone through a similar process, then some of the problems David Cameron is now facing would be mitigated. The coalition agreement would have had much more legitimacy and the PM would be in a stronger position to argue that its policies should be adhered to.
I hope that these episodes make the Conservative leadership think again about how policy-making is formulated and to involve the grass roots in the process. It's all very well trying to "triangulate" but if your MPs are not willing to vote for the measures then it just becomes an exercise in obfuscation and ultimately futility. Far better for everyone all round, including the voters to ensure that any future manifesto contains measures that are likely to achieve support within the body of MPs from their party that form the voting bloc within parliament?
Then we will all know what we are likely to be getting, rather than commitments that are then viscerally opposed by the very people who stood for election on the platform formed by them.
*I am aware that some Conservatives claim that a commitment to Lords reform was not explicitly in the manifesto which is technically true but the spirit of what was intended was clear. The fact that the small amount of wriggle room was utilised against this spirit essentially proves my broader point.