Steve Richards: The Tory right's fears can be allayed

A formal agreement with the Conservatives would contradict one of the few credible messages left for the Lib Dems
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What is happening in politics is rarely the same as what is perceived to be happening. In Labour's first term Tony Blair declared that he was a daring radical. His sincere but subjective proclamation became the accepted narrative for a long time. By his third term even Mr Blair was bemoaning his early timidity. Over Christmas and the New Year a new theme has taken hold in relation to the Coalition that is at least as deceptive.

In the current febrile, shapeless political situation, where many factions and wings of parties are uneasy, it is the right that stirs most vocally. In the form of columns from Tory-supporting journalists, the justifiably influential Conservative Home website, and public declarations from backbench MPs, various shades on the right express more public anguish than discontented social democrats in the Liberal Democrats and disillusioned Blairites in the Labour Party.

Specifically, the dissenters on the right fear an electoral pact between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats at the next election, one that dilutes the identity and purpose of their party. More generally, they are uneasy at the current direction of policy.

There is a little cause for the right's anxieties. David Cameron enjoys working with Nick Clegg. Mr Cameron's senior allies, Steve Hilton and Oliver Letwin, are equally enthralled. Cameron has been known to wonder aloud in private whether he is leading an historic realignment of the centre right, the mirror image of Blair's failed attempt to accomplish something similar on the centre left. Yesterday's Independent reported that the Liberal Democrats' poll rating was the lowest since the party's wretched early days after the collapse of the SDP.

Nick Boles, one of the Conservatives' so-called modernisers (forgive the repeated qualifications, but terms such as "modernise' have become virtually meaningless), has called openly for a pact so that the parties can continue their crusade for two terms. The editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, has observed that survival for the Liberal Democrats will depend on such a pact. Even Nick Clegg's declaration yesterday that there would be no pre-election agreement is not much comfort for Tory MPs wondering where this is leading. Mr Clegg could hardly say anything else while campaigning in a by-election in which his candidate is battling it out with the Tories, who are fighting a half-hearted campaign.

Nonetheless, there will be no pact. Right-wing MPs worried about what one has termed the "purple plotters" can relax. It will not happen.

A formal agreement with the Conservatives would contradict one of the few credible messages left for the Liberal Democrats at the next election. They hope to argue that coalitions can work as a matter of principle and that they have proved capable of governing. For this message to have any impact it must be delivered from a position of neutrality in respect to the other parties. If they form an electoral pact with the Conservatives, the message becomes an entirely different one, confirming the view that they are a party on the centre right, desperately seeking to retain power in alliance with Messrs Cameron and Osborne.

This may well be the private hope of some at the top of the Liberal Democrats, but to express it so publicly and in such an opportunistically mechanistic form would be more damaging than to risk oblivion in a more familiar battle with the other two parties. It will not just be some Tory MPs who will be uneasy about a pact with the Liberal Democrats. There would be plenty of Liberal Democrats, already wondering about the wisdom of the current relationship with the Conservatives, who would declare that enough is enough, if they have not already done so by the time of the election.

The defiance of local activists is the other reason why there will be no pact. The best guide to what happens when parties seek to divide up seats is one that some Liberal Democrats will be familiar with. The attempt to do so destroyed the SDP/Liberal Alliance in the 1980s. Here was a formal alliance and not a coalition between two separate parties, yet fatal tensions erupted over distribution of seats. In their definitive account of the SDP, Ivor Crewe and Anthony King wrote that the "seats negotiations in 1981 provide a case study of the difficulty of organising an electoral pact between two separate political parties, even parties as friendly as the SDP and Liberals".

Admittedly, they were attempting a nationwide pact, whereas the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would presumably be more selective at the next election. Nonetheless, the first attempt at a pact for the Alliance took place at the height of its honeymoon and when there was more obvious common ground between Liberals and the SDP than there is now between most Lib Dems and the Conservative Party. The negotiations were a nightmare, and they got worse later when the alliance became increasingly strained

Even now, with the next election a long way off, I know of local Conservatives in parts of the South-west of England wondering whether their moment has come in seats currently held by the Liberal Democrats. I cannot see them willingly standing aside to give the sitting MPs from another party a clear run. Nick Clegg has looked on with envy at what he has jokingly described as David Cameron's "Bonapartist" grip on a Conservative Party not known for robust internal democracy. Even so, there are limits to Bonapartism in any party. A pact would move beyond them.

Perhaps at some point the Orange Book Liberal Democrats will form a partnership or merge with the Conservatives, although even this is unlikely. What is certain is that any realignment on the right or left will not take the form of an electoral pact.

As for the general direction of government policy, there is much for the right to cheer. Spending cuts are being imposed on a scale that is deeper than any equivalent country. The universities and the NHS are being privatised stealthily. Free schools will almost certainly lead to the return of selection in one form or another. The private sector will move in to run services dropped by councils starved of cash. Claims that tax policies are progressive are dismissed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The Conservative leadership would not have dared to show its ideological zeal quite so clearly if it were ruling alone. Admittedly in other areas, and partly thanks to the understated work of Mr Clegg, policies are not quite as pure as some Conservative MPs would like, although I note that Ken Clarke's plans to reduce the prison population takes the form of a tentative Green Paper, while Andrew Lansley speeds ahead with his plan that over time will make the NHS a safety net for the poor while the rest of us will take out insurance to pay for a private sector in health that can hardly believe its luck.

The wary suspicions of the right in the Conservative Party allow Mr Cameron to portray such policies as being on the centre ground. But in reality, the right has more cause to raise a glass at the start of 2011 than any other bewildered group of believers trying to make sense of Britain's deceptive political choreography.