For those of us used to the old autumn routine, only this week's TUC curtain-raiser for the annual party conference season looks certain to operate on traditional lines. The calls for industrial action against the Coalition cuts are entirely predictable. Suggestions of a forthcoming winter of discontent fall from the doom-mongers who are already assuming poll tax-style riots. But the realities of secondary picketing and the post-Thatcherite rules on the laws governing trade union behaviour will mitigate the empty rhetoric.
The party conferences, beginning with the Liberal Democrats next week, promise to be far more unpredictable, following the extraordinary developments in British politics since the general election. Each week the Coalition changes the normal rhythms and timetables of politics. Yesterday's announcement that, as part of the proposals for fixed-term parliaments, the current session of Parliament will run until the spring of of 2012, is just the latest example of this. The Queen's Speech for 2011 will be abolished and the government is now giving itself two years to enact its initial legislative programme.
In theory, the Lib Dems should be in the most buoyant and celebratory mood. For the first time in modern history, at their conference in Liverpool, they will have full police protection and security as befits a party of government – with five Cabinet ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, and a phalanx of junior ministers in every Government department in attendance. If, however, these ministers arrive expecting roses to be strewn in their path by grateful delegates, they need to disabuse themselves. Ordinary party members will also have difficulty in deciding whether to be pleased or angry that their conference numbers will be inflated by hordes of journalists and corporate public-relations spivs desperate to host champagne receptions and hang on the every word of the theoretical new power in the political land.
My hunch is that many constituency activists will be unhappy at the outside intrusion into their affairs and will look askance on their senior figures, now in Government, defending the decisions of their Tory Coalition colleagues. The default position of Lib-Dem members has hitherto been to be the natural, and most effective, party of protest and opposition. And if the Tories had had an overall majority, the opposition to George Osborne's programme of budget increases – especially VAT – together with his anticipated cuts to welfare spending, would have been led by Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and their senior colleagues.
So, on the face of it, any suggestion that Lib Dems look favourably upon the idea, presented yesterday by Nicholas Boles, the new Tory MP for Grantham and Stamford, for an electoral pact with the Tories, would be blown a raspberry by party members, were it on next week's conference agenda. Thus far, both Lib Dems and Tories have resisted any such notion. Yet this dog will bark between now and the next general election.
It is helpful, therefore, that Mr Boles, in his new book Which Way's Up, has been the first to have the courage to face, squarely, the inevitable case for an electoral pact that arises as a consequence of the Coalition agreement. Mr Boles was an early backer of David Cameron's Tory leadership in 2005 and is expected to gain promotion when ministerial jobs are handed out to the Tory new boys. I don't suppose, for one moment, his view is officially – yet – shared by the Prime Minister or his Deputy.
I wonder, however, whether in the the darker recesses of their minds Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg are not already giving thought to how to present the case for the re-election of the Coalition government. To appeal to voters in 2015 by saying the previous five years have been a great success, without some kind of informal electoral understanding, is to undermine the very arguments the two leaders will put in defending their Coalition record.
But Mr Boles' case should be seriously examined by his Lib-Dem and Tory colleagues, if for no other reason than on the basis of their long-term electoral survival. I have always thought it impossible for Tories to oppose Nick Clegg next time in his Sheffield constituency on the basis that his record, and that of his party, will have been dreadful between 2010 and 2015. Equally, how does Mr Clegg tell voters his Lib Dems are better than the horrid Tories – with all their dreadful cuts to which he will have agreed? The same applies for other incumbent MPs in both parts of the Coalition.
Mr Boles proposes that – even before the Osborne cuts are announced next month – both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg should announce that their parties approve a binding agreement to fight the 2015 election as Coalition partners. The pact, on the assumption that the referendum on the alternative vote is lost, would give Lib Dems the right to stand, without a Tory, in the seats they currently hold – and vice versa. In marginal seats held by Labour there would be an agreement that only the best placed Lib Dem or Tory would present a candidate. In the event that electoral reform is agreed in the referendum, Mr Boles suggests "the pact would require each of the Coalition partners to urge their supporters to give their second preference vote to the candidate from the other Coalition party".
Mr Boles' proposal is predicated on the assumption that Lib Dems and Tories are united in their view that the Coalition is a good thing. We shall know more clearly next week the extent to which Nick Clegg's love affair with David Cameron has permeated the lower ranks of the party faithful. The nightmare for Mr Clegg is that too many among the rank and file simply have no wish to "defend the indefensible". By the time of next year's Lib-Dem gathering there will be resolutions from the hundreds of defeated Lib Dem councillors, at next May's local elections, for complete withdrawal from the Cameron Coalition. Mr Boles' proposal, however, may be a more practical life-line for Lib-Dem survival than anything likely to be on offer from a new Labour leader – especially if that turns out to be Ed Miliband.
For further reading: 'Which Way's Up?', by Nick Boles (Biteback, September 2010)
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