The Conservatives have a history of absorbing currents to their right and left into their own persevering river. After the Second World War, the National Liberal Party, one of the break-offs from the old Liberal Party, was merged into it. After the First, the National Party, which as Lewis Baston has reminded readers of this site, had the support of eight Tory MPs at its peak was reintegrated into the Conservatives. That’s one competitor to the Left and one to the Right eliminated. There is also the best-known breakaway of all – the Liberal Unionists, with Joe Chamberlain and all that. Elsewhere, Lewis has written on ConservativeHome that –
“The history of the Conservative Party shows that it has often sailed into power accompanied by a flotilla of MPs elected under various flags of convenience. Between 1874 and 1979 all Conservative majorities came with at least one or two MPs, often a lot more, who were not technically Tories. Even in the 1950s, as well as the National Liberals who were fully integrated with the Conservatives some of the remaining Liberal MPs owed their survival to local electoral pacts, as in Bolton and Huddersfield.”
Michael Gove’s apparent ruling-out of any talks with UKIP at all – in the event of it having MPs returned to the Commons after May 7 – is best seen in the light of this long story. I write “apparent” because it isn’t yet clear whether the Chief Whip was freelancing (which has occasionally been known to happen), or whether he, as a Tory whom Nigel Farage has said he could work with, was sent out to deliver this message to a newspaper read by many Conservative and UKIP activists alike.
Tactically and for the short-term, Gove’s words make sense. The Party is in the business of maximising its vote. Talk of pacts in a hung Parliament are a distraction. Ed Miliband’s evasions over whether or not Labour would deal with the SNP if no party has a majority are doing him no good: indeed, it is his main weakness in this campaign to date, and one which the Conservatives are hammering away at. The Chief Whip was arguably put on the spot, and would certainly have been criticised had he said the opposite.
But the long-term is more important than the short, at least in this case – and often in the story of this Tory leadership. After all, so many of its troubles have come from taking a position for today without thinking enough about tomorrow – the green excesses in opposition, the VAT measures of the “Omnishambles Budget”, signing up for writing the 0.7 per cent aid target into law, the effective whipping of Ministers on same-sex marriage, the bungling of the laudable aim of dumping John Bercow, and so on.
Sooner or later, the Conservatives should do to UKIP what they did to the National Party, and incorporate the better part of Farage’s operation into itself. And there is a such a part of UKIP: all its MPs and many of its activists are former Tories, after all – and their loss is being pinchingly felt during this campaign, if claims of Labour winning the ground war in the marginals are correct. Indeed, UKIP is “a mainstream political party”, in the words of the very same Cabinet Minister who gave the Telegraph its interview – Gove himself.
If the Chief Whip’s words really do express the Downing Street view, the only logical conclusion to draw is that, if the Commons is hung, David Cameron will talk to Nick Clegg but not to Douglas Carswell (one of the thimbleful of UKIP candidates who are likely to be elected). This would be absurd. It would also be unsustainable. The Party must be open to its left and to its right. That’s how coalitions have been built and elections have been won throughout its history as the longest-lasting political force in the world. The alternative is to carry on as now – and dwindle into being a natural party of opposition with about a third of the vote.