The really weird thing about the Lib Dems

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The most interesting development of the past few weeks is that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have come closer together, not least on the reform of the Lords. Five years ago such a movement would have been inconceivable. Even at the last election it would have placed a certain strain on the imagination. As usual, what has happened owes as much to personalities as to policies.

Lord Ashdown did not admire Mr William Hague. When Mr Charles Kennedy succeeded as leader in 1999, Mr Hague looked down on him rather as a self-indulgent, undisciplined sort of chap, who could not give up smoking, did not take enough exercise and was a little too fond of the odd wee dram.

As the results of the election showed, Mr Hague had underestimated Mr Kennedy's appeal to the voters. They likewise could not relinquish smoking, were averse to physical exercise and would have consumed strong spirits if they had been able to afford them. Mr Kenneth Clarke possesses the same appeal. Mr Iain Duncan Smith does not. But despite his baldness and his quasi-Oriental appearance (the result of having a Japanese great-grandmother), he is more recognisably a member of the human race than Mr Hague ever was. The chief reason for this coming together is that the Blair-Ashdown alliance is no more.

The theory of the opening to the left – that a progressive, radical party could sweep the country and keep the Conservatives in permanent opposition – was not, of course, new. It had been propagated most vigorously by Jo Grimond, leader of the Liberal Party from 1956 to 1967. He thought the Liberals should ally themselves with the bulk of the Labour Party, eventually forming a new party and leaving a small, socialist group crying in the wilderness.

Grimond's wishes were partly fulfilled with the alliance of the Social Democrats and the Liberals in 1981–87 and the formation of the Social and Liberal Democrats in 1988 who, after a ballot, became the Liberal Democrats in the following year. In share of the vote at elections, the Liberal Democrats have never done better than the Alliance in 1983 and 1987. In seats, however, Mr Kennedy has with 52 secured the highest number since Lloyd George in 1929.

The short point is that the revolution which Grimond had wanted to bring about had already gone off half-cock by the end of the 1980s. In 1981-82 it was seriously believed that the Liberals and the Social Democrats could together emerge from the forthcoming election as the largest party. If the Alliance proved a disappointment, it was because the Social Democrats failed to attract enough Labour MPs. True, they had some surprising converts such as Tom Bradley, George Cunningham and Tom McNally. But the Healeys and the Hattersleys stayed.

After 1994 Tony Blair abandoned socialism with a thoroughness which John Smith would never have displayed. Roy Jenkins, effectively the founder of the Social Democrats in 1981, persuaded Mr Blair to try to make a clean sweep and to complete the revolution. He urged an absorption by Labour of the Liberal Democrats. Naturally it was not put in quite this way. There would be stages to be completed, agreements to be concluded, just as there had been between the Liberals and the Social Democrats in the 1980s. The prize would be beyond price: a radical century, as opposed to the Conservative century in which they were then still living.

Mr Blair was impressed, Mr Ashdown ecstatic. Paddy and Tony went to bed together several times, but the more often they met and the more enthusiastically they disported themselves, the more remote became the prospect of church bells, champagne and a honeymoon on the Continent. It is a familiar pattern.

Tony could be cruel at times. He would cancel meetings at the last minute, pleading other engagements; would not always return telephone calls; would refuse to commit himself, particularly over proportional representation, on which, it appeared, a rough friend of his called John Prescott could be specially awkward. Nor did his other friends wholly approve of the liaison. They were thoroughly relieved when Tony's passion cooled.

For a time, Mr Kennedy kept up these arrangements. But his heart was not in it. Liberal commentators (not including this one) urged him to persevere. All would come right in the end. Mr Kennedy did not agree. He did not see what he was getting out of it – again, a familiar enough cry. Emboldened by success in the election, he broke off relations completely.

Mr Kennedy has no wish to form an alliance with Mr Duncan Smith. There is nothing for him in that either. The Conservatives are moving closer to the Liberal Democrats in policy and – what is more important – in what my old friend Maurice Cowling calls "rhetoric" because they want to seem nicer, more normal. They no longer wish to appear to justify Mr Blair's jibe at the Bournemouth conference, "weird, weird, weird". Mr Kennedy is moving closer to Mr Duncan Smith because, come the election, he wishes his party's candidates to stand as credible alternatives to the Conservatives.

There are 42 Conservative MPs who won with less than 50 per cent of the vote and had a Liberal Democrat in second place. They are all vulnerable to Mr Kennedy's charms. A changeover in these constituencies would bring the Liberal Democrats to within 30 seats of the Tories in the House. They would still be the largest party, but not by much. If the Liberal Democrats won even more seats, they could claim the title of Opposition, with all its concomitant privileges; just as Ramsay MacDonald performed one of his many services to his party (I am not being ironical) by claiming the title for Labour.

It is a mistake to believe that, to conduct this manoeuvre successfully, Mr Kennedy must, as the phrase goes, move "further to the right". As Sir Samuel Brittan demonstrated many years ago, left and right are points not so much on a line as in space. And notions change. I can remember the time when being against membership of the Common Market (as the European Union was then called) was an infallible sign of being on the left.

Today we have a government on the right, a Liberal Democratic party on the left and a Conservative party that does not know where it is. There is nothing odd about former Conservatives who want higher public expenditure and a more generous attitude towards asylum seekers. And what has already happened at Guildford and Winchester, Richmond and Twickenham could happen at Taunton once again and at Tiverton and Tunbridge Wells too.