Peter Bone, a right-wing Eurosceptic Conservative MP, may only be a household name in his own household but he is in the thoughts of our senior politicians this summer.
As it happens, his own household is mentioned quite a lot in the Commons, since he jokingly tells David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions what “Mrs Bone” would make of it all.
Mr and Mrs Bone would clearly like the Coalition to end yesterday. The MP for Wellingborough made his latest call for the Tories to detach themselves from the pesky Liberal Democrats this week after the Foreign Office issued a series of reports suggesting the balance of power between London and Brussels was about right in six key areas.
At a recent press conference, Nick Clegg cited some of the 40 “loopy” backbench Bills that “my mate Peter Bone” and his allies are introducing – to highlight the right-wing Tory agenda the Liberal Democrats are blocking inside the Coalition. They include bringing back the death penalty; banning the burka; a Margaret Thatcher Day bank holiday; withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); privatising the BBC and limiting sexual misconduct allegations to breaches of the criminal law.
This list matters not because these Bills have any chance of becoming law now, but because some of them – such as pulling out of the ECHR – would stand a chance if the Tories won an overall majority in 2015. So Mr Clegg will argue that a strong Liberal Democrat presence in the next parliament could rein in a Conservative Party determined to veer right.
Tory strategists, too, are turning their attention to Mr Bone’s gang of about 20 hard-core right-wingers. Although Labour’s opinion poll lead has shrunk, it is going to be very difficult for Mr Cameron to win outright next time. As the election will be fought on the existing constituency boundaries, which favour Labour, the Tories need to be six or seven points ahead to be sure of a majority. Mr Cameron told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday that he is “going to fight all out for victory,” but a more realistic Tory target is to secure about 35 per cent of the vote and be the largest party.
Privately, some senior Tories think a small overall majority might be worse than another coalition because it would leave Mr Cameron dependent on the Commons votes of Bone & Co – crucially, at a time when Europe would top the agenda in the run-up to the in/out referendum Mr Cameron has promised in 2017. “Imagine picking up the phone to Peter Bone and asking him what he wanted in return for supporting the Government,” one Cabinet minister sighed. The Coalition currently enjoys a majority of 77, sidelining Bone & Co. It is a luxury Mr Cameron can only dream of when he thinks about a Tory-only government.
So, although the polls show the Liberal Democrats at about 11 per cent and still trailing the UK Independence Party, Mr Clegg started his summer break this week in surprisingly good spirits. His party is in a stronger strategic position than the polls suggest. Its pitch in 2015 – “a stronger economy and fairer society” – sounds like just another slogan, but it has been vindicated by recent events. The problems in the NHS will rekindle voters’ doubts about whether the Tories can be trusted to build a fairer society, a key reason behind their failure to win in 2010. The Liberal Democrats’ own polling suggests they have successfully claimed ownership of the Government’s flagship rise in tax thresholds to £10,000 a year, giving Mr Clegg crucial ammunition as he spells out what his party has achieved in coalition.
At the same time, voters continue to doubt that a Labour government would deliver a strong economy. Liberal Democrat strategists believe the most significant development of the political year just ending was Labour’s acceptance that more cuts would be needed after the next election. “Labour has moved on to our ground,” one Liberal Democrat said. “It vindicates our decision to enter the Coalition in 2010 to sort out the deficit.”
So the Liberal Democrats are very much in the game, and can offer to anchor a Tory or Labour-led government in the centre ground. Another hung parliament remains a real prospect in 2015. Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband know they can’t ignore Mr Clegg; they might need him.
The Prime Minister has two dilemmas. Many in his party will demand the Coalition ends before the election, but the Liberal Democrats want it to last up to the wire to show that “coalition works”. Mr Cameron will have to offer his party some “red meat” in the Tory manifesto on welfare cuts, the EU, the ECHR and eventual tax cuts. His problem is that advertising a lurch to the right would reduce the Tories’ electoral prospects in 2015 and make it harder for the Liberal Democrats to sign up to another coalition. Tricky.