Both the Daily Mail and The Times carry stories today about the mechanics of forming another coalition in the event of a hung parliament in 2015 – particularly the question of whether Conservative MPs and/or party members will be balloted on any possible coalition agreement.
Both ideas are, I’m glad to say, ConservativeHome proposals. Part of this site’s fundamental mission is to increase the power of the grassroots membership of our party. It must be right for members to get a vote on the question of what kind of compromise should be made, and who with, should the electorate require us to make more compromises after the General Election.
The same goes for the involvement of the Parliamentary Conservative Party in the decision-making process. As Graham Brady told Andrew Gimson before Christmas, the 1922 Committee expects a formal ballot of MPs to take place before any deal is signed – a vague process of chats in the tearoom to gauge opinion will not be enough.
Introducing such a belt and braces approach would be wise as well as just. People often compare the relative lack of dissent within Lib Dem ranks to the apparently widespread disgruntlement among Tory MPs and members as proof that daubing a whole party in the blood of a deal leads to a more peaceful experience in coalition.
That may be part of the story, but there’s a more practical reason for the contrasting moods. Tories are peeved because they feel the Lib Dems got a disproportionately good deal in the Coalition Agreement. Arguably, Clegg was driven to strike such a hard bargain precisely because he knew he would have to convince his members and his MPs to vote for it – if he failed to get enough Lib Dem policies agreed, then he would face the humiliation of a No vote.
By the same token, the Conservative leadership did not have the shades of such scrutiny leaning over their shoulders as they hammered out the Coalition deal. That meant a missed opportunity to strengthen their resolve.
This is a different diagnosis from the blood-daubing theory, but it leads us to the same practical solution. Should there be another hung parliament, a system requiring a new coalition agreement to be approved by ballots of MPs and party members would produce a better deal for the Conservative Party, and greater harmony during the course of the ensuing government.
Downing Street’s stock response is, of course, that “this is idle and completely baseless speculation. The Prime Minister’s sole focus is on winning a Conservative majority at next year’s general election.”
Unfortunately, while the Prime Minister’s focus rightly is on winning a majority, speculation on his potential failure to do so is neither idle nor baseless. A majority is – just about – possible, but a host of factors from UKIP to boundaries are stacked against us.
Anyone who reads the newspapers – including Number 10 – can see that another hung parliament is a distinct possibility. Had we followed Disraeli’s maxim of hoping for the best but preparing for the worst and planned against the possibility in 2010, we might have a rather better deal now.
How would this democratic belt and braces approach to a new coalition work in practice?
Whoever briefed today’s story to the papers is apparently concerned that members would vote for a new coalition and thus undermine MPs on the matter. Our monthly survey of party members reveals this to be an unfounded concern for two reasons:
1) Members aren’t so keen on another coalition. In March, we revealed that the number of party members who are “completely opposed” to another coalition had for the first time surpassed those who were “broadly supportive”. At that point 61.2 per cent of the membership were opposed either completely or broadly to a new coalition. In our most recent survey, 56.8 per cent were opposed and only 33 per cent were in favour (only 4.5 per cent counted themselves as “complete supportive”, compared to 26.1 per cent who say they are “completely opposed”). The assumption that the grassroots would simply back a deal, no questions asked, is inaccurate.
2) Many members respect the Parliamentary Conservative Party. As Paul says in the Mail, when we surveyed party members about whether they should get a vote on a new coalition deal, 57 per cent said yes – but 43 per cent said no. To quote my colleague:
‘It’s hard to read the 43 per cent return as meaning anything other than: “we’re content to leave the decision to Conservative MPs”. It follows, then, that the overwhelming majority of them would back any recommendation by those MPs that the present coalition be re-constituted. To gain a simple majority of party members, the party leadership would have to persuade an extra eight per cent or all those who voted to join them. This seems to me to be a very long way short of mission impossible.’
Whatever the details of the eventual protocol which is hammered out, any future coalition negotiations are going to be very different from those we saw in 2010. They’ll likely take longer, and be harder fought, both by virtue of the need to ballot people who are’t round the negotiation table. If, as we hope, the party membership is balloted before a government is formed, it will also see a new age in Conservative internal relations – not only will there be an added impetus for the CCHQ machine to get the membership lists up to date, but we may even see widespread campaigning by supporters and opponents of a new coalition.
We entered new territory in 2010, and this is a reminder that far from having an established process for dealing with hung parliaments, everyone is still making up the rules as they go along.