Monday, 17 December 2007

Should be Beware of Tories bearing gifts ?

As widely reported in yesterday's Observer and on the Conservative Party website and picked up on, David Cameron made an "offer" to both the Liberal Democrats and Greens to support a decentralising agenda in 2008.

The timing of this is clearly significant with the result of the Liberal Democrat leadership election due tomorrow and the Green Party in the throes of changing its leadership. Chris Huhne has already rejected Cameron's overtures out of hand but I haven't yet seen a comment from Nick Clegg. If, as I suspect and hope, Clegg becomes the new Liberal Democrat leader, life will be a little less comfortable for David Cameron but a potential historic opportunity comes into view.

What Cameron is NOT talking about (at least explicitly) is an arrangement/coalition/deal (delete as appropriate) in the event of a Hung Parliament but that's where all the political pundits think this is going. Although the current polls (including the most recent YouGov poll) show the Conservatives winning a majority alone, the fact remains that the Tories have a lot to do to go from their current 198 seats to a working majority. The key to a Conservative "victory" is more about taking seats from Labour than it is taking seats from the Lib Dems. Every seat lost by the Government to the Opposition is therefore of greater significance than seats changing hands within the Opposition and Cameron will also know that if Labour regain seats lost to the Liberal Democrats, that undoes a gain made by the Conservatives from Labour.

I suspect that Cameron knows that a block of 30-40 Liberal Democrat MPs will survive the next election and that could be significant (along with perhaps a Green MP elected in Brighton) in building a non-Labour majority in the next Parliament.

Cameron "talks the talk" about decentralisation but, the Sustainable Communities Act notwithstanding (which had some Labour support too), we have seen little concrete in terms of REAL devolution or decentralisation. Indeed, the recent co-operative schools initiative suggested less a return to control by directly-elected and accountable local authorities than the flagrant takeover of school governing bodies by Conservative Party activists. While Nick Clegg can and should welcome Cameron's support for decentralisation, he should be bold enough to say that we need to see concrete and costed proposals from the Conservatives.

Some Liberal Democrat members and activists will find the thought of co-operating in any way with the Conservatives reprehensible and I agree the watchword should be caution but strategically and tactically, the Party cannot afford to be seen as a backdoor vehicle for Labour. We heartd similar initiatives from "New Labour" in the mid-90s and although Paddy Ashdown may have seen sympathetic to Blair, the fact was that once Labour won a landslide in 1997, any thoughts of collaboration were abandoned and the same would be true of David Cameron and the Conservatives.

The danger for David Cameron lurking in the background is that Nick Clegg turns out to be an effective Liberal Democrat leader. There remains, in my view, plenty of evidence that behind the smooth facade, David Cameron is a weak and brittle character - in many ways, as "flawed" as Gordon Brown. I don't relish the thought of him and his baying acolytes governing this country with any kind of majority. Anything which can ameliorate that prospect is therefore to be welcomed.

I'll comment on the LD leadership election result when I'm next allowed time off Christmas shopping.

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