Nick Clegg wants to tell the world how unbearable his Conservative partners are. The temptation is for us to respond in kind. It is easy to see how this could be done. Essentially, Grant Shapps’s job is a Party and not a Ministerial one (his Government title is Minister without Portfolio, which rather makes the point). As Party Chairman, he could thus be loosed by Downing Street on Clegg, David Laws, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes, Tim Farron – and all the rest of those whinging, whining Liberal Democrat MPs.
He could list all the good things that the yellow b*st*rds – as Tory backbenchers have occasionally been known to refer to their colleagues – have blocked, helped to block, tried to block, or are blocking: the In/Out EU referendum that their last manifesto promised, Baroness Morgan’s non-reappointment as Chairman of Osted, a lower cap on council tax hikes, Dominic Raab’s amendment to the Immigration Bill to deport foreign criminals, raising the inheritance tax threshold…the list is long.
Shapps could go on to highlight the contrast between the LibDems’ high moral tone and the less elevated reality: Laws’s expense claims, Chris Huhne’s penalty points (or rather, his wife’s, or rather, his ex-wife’s), and Mike Hancock’s reworking of From Russia With Love. He could go further, and compere a re-run of the Lib Dem’s Greatest Hits – Michael Brown’s dodgy donations, Chris Rennard’s wandering hands, Norman Baker’s conspiracy theories, the defenestration of Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell – both within one Parliament. And then there is the fate of Rinka, the Great Dane…
But to detail this course of action is to demonstrate how self-defeating it would be. All political parties have their scandals, and mud can stick to the person throwing it as well as the person targeted. More importantly, people tire easily of having other people’s problems inflicted one them, and Tory tabloid tales of Liberal Democrat perfidy would cut little ice. More importantly still, we are in coalition with the party we would be complaining about. That may just work for them, but it certainly won’t for us.
The fact is that we are the bigger of the two parties in government. It therefore follows that, fairly or unfairly, this administration is seen by many voters as more blue than yellow. (For an analysis of whether this is fair or not, read Mark Wallace’s analysis of what’s happened in government.) There is thus a certain logic in the Liberal Democrats tortured attempt both to differentiate themselves from and identify themselves with the Government they chose to join. There would be none at all in us seeking to do the same.
That isn’t to say that we should turn the other cheek when Clegg slaps us. But we should be asking ourselves: just how hard do we want to hit back – and where? An electoral answer is that we want the Liberal Democrats to do very badly against us and pretty well against Labour. We want their vote to hold up well enough in Warwickshire North, say, for us to keep the seat, but to fall low enough in Solihull, for example, for us to take it.
Or to put it another way, part of CCHQ’s strategy should be to squeeze the Lib Dems in the (largely) southern marginals they hold, but leave them alone in the (mostly) more northern ones held by Labour. Before planning for either outcome, we of course want our own vote to grow – which means explaining persuasively that the Government has strong Conservative leadership, is delivering economic recovery with rising living standards, and is united enough to have worked as well as coalition allows.
Obviously, suggesting that we would do even better on our own is part of that pitch. Just as obviously, advancing a full menu of Tory policies (for example, more apprenticeships as well as cuts in fuel duty, for example, or greater NHS transparency as well as an EU referendum) is another part. But bleating that nasty Nick is stopping us delivering Conservative policies is a confession of weakness and, while slating Cable makes us all feel better, it scarcely conveys an impression of being in control of events.
Besides which, the Business Secretary seems rather to enjoy being slagged off by Tories, since it boosts his standing with his party’s left and helps to widen the door to future co-operation with Ed Miliband. And if that’s what he wants, it should be be denied him. A clever-dick objection to this line of argument might be: couldn’t this also be said of Labour? Doesn’t Miliband also relish being attacked by Downing Street and CCHQ? In which case, why not go the whole hog, and hold back from attacking them, too?
But the two cases are not the same. Labour is capable of winning elections and leading governments, and CCHQ’s fire must thus be turned on them – always. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats can’t win a Commons majority, but they are in coalition with us. Striking back at Clegg thus demands different tactics from hitting out at Miliband. What are they? Among the best people to ask are the Conservative MPs who sit for what were until recently Lib Dem seats.
There is a pattern to their success. Whether it’s Richard Benyon in Newbury or Andrew Jones in Harrogate and Knaresborough, whether the victory was won at the last election or before, the electoral recipe is much the same. Keep it local. Work hard. Pound the pavements. If your opponent is weak or a newcomer, wind up the pressure up. In short, out-do the Lib Dems at the campaigning politics that they pride themselves on having perfected. When it comes to Clegg’s complaining, the old sayings hold good. Eat your revenge cold – and don’t get mad, get even.