Sunday, 2 January 2011

Rumblings from the Right...

The first weekend of the New Year has seen an outbreak of grumbling and whingeing from the anti-Coalition Conservatives in their house magazine, the Daily Mail. Saturday's edition of that newspaper saw the deeply unpleasant Amanda Platell and the odious Dominic Sandbrook both take potshots at Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

Platell is described by the paper as "waspish" which is short-hand for unpleasant and abusive while Sandbrook seems to be a man wallowing in romanticised nostalgia possessing extremely right-wing views. Both dislike the Coalition and while they have to be careful and coded in their criticism of David Cameron, they treat Nick Clegg as badly as any Labour figure.

This morning, they have been joined by Mark Pritchard, Conservative MP for The Wrekin. Now, I don't know anything about him but one look at his website and seeing him wrapped in the Union Jack, tells me all I need to know. His article is a robust response to remarks from Sir John Major, Nick Boles and others suggesting the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats might field joint "Coalition" candidates at the 2015 election.

The Major/Boles approach is actually quite subtle and attractive for Liberal Democrats facing poor poll ratings at present and it's a throwback to the days of Liberal Nationals and National Liberals which saw part of the then Liberal party absorbed into the Conservatives. The Conservative Party was a different beast back then of course. That said, the fielding of "Coalition" candidates would also be analogous to the 1918 elections after the Lloyd George/Asquith split. Such a proposal would be guaranteed to split the Liberal Democrats asunder so it's clever politics.

Pritchard is of course a Thatcherite oaf who wouldn't know subtlety if it came up and bit him on the nose. He is probably opposed to the Coalition and it would be nice if an undercover journalist recorded some of HIS verbal indiscretions. Anyway, his article, which reads more like the ramblings of a right-wing acxtivist than the coherent musings of a senior Conservative MP, rejects any notion of joint "Coalition" candidates and is a thinly veiled challenge to David Cameron urging him to restore the primacy of the Right in the party and to go for a Conservative overall majority in 2015.

Needless to say, Pritchard and his ilk are manna from heaven for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats as they seek to preserve the Party's identity and relevance. One only has to imagine the likes of Pritchard in Government to see what a disaster they would be for the country. One of the great successes of the Coalition (and one of the huge benefits for David Cameron) is that it has muzzled the ogres on the Right much as Tony Blair was able to silence the nutters in his own Party by the landslide of 1997.

Developments are going to be subtle but, as I've argued before, the Coalition is going to change the Conservative Party every bit as much as the Liberal Democrats if not more. As European democracies have discovered, it's perfectly possible for independent political parties to both compete at elections and collaborate in Government and IF the Coalition succeeds in its radical and audacious programme of social improvement and economic renewal, we COULD be looking at an extended period of centre-right Government.

The other option, of course, depends on how Labour reacts to developments. At the moment, Ed Milliband is enjoying being an Opposition leader and spends his time complaining and whingeing just like the anti-Coalition Conservatives. Eventually, he will need to confront those who ask him (quite reasonably) what he would do in Government. Labour might think, as after 1992, that they can win in 2015 with "one big heave" but 1955, Feb 1974 and 1983 suggest the Labour vote share is much more likely to fall than rise and a more pragmatic leader might be thinking now about a rapprochement with the Liberal Democrats. In West Germany, the FDP switched sides (without changing leader) in 1982 and as long as the personality of the politics doesn't get in the way, a Labour-Liberal Democrat Coalition could yet be an option.

In any case, the grumblings of Pritchard show how far the Coalition has travelled since May and while I'm sure the discontent will continue and the sniping against Clegg will intensify in the months to come (and especially up to and after the AV referendum), Cameron can rest easy in the fact that there is no one on the anti-Coalition Conservative side with the cojones to challenge or defect. Yes, they will all campaign against AV and cheer if and when the refrendum fails but that won't break the Coalition though it may make life uncomfortable.

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