9 June 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 10 June 2011

When the Tories and Liberal Democrats stitched up their coalition a little more than a year ago, my immediate reaction was that it wouldn’t last. OK, the Tories and the Orange Book Lib Dems shared an ideological commitment to the free market and a smaller state – but too much divided the parties for the coalition to hold in the long run: constitutional reform, Europe, civil liberties, defence…” I’ll give it two years at most,” I confidently told a group of friends the day David Cameron and Nick Clegg staged their press conference in the Number Ten rose garden.

I started having second thoughts within a couple of weeks, and by Xmas I’d reached the conclusion that the coalition might just survive the full term. I wavered a bit in the final stages of the alternative vote referendum campaign, when Lib Dem anger at the nastiness of No To AV’s attacks on Clegg nearly boiled over. But in the past month I’ve become ever more convinced that the coalition will last until 2015.

The reason is simple: the Liberal Democrats have nowhere else to go. They were thrashed in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English local elections last month, and they are bumping along with 10 per cent support in the opinion polls. In a general election, they would, in the absence of an electoral pact, be reduced to a handful of MPs, and they know it. It’s possible to imagine them leaving the coalition without precipitating an immediate general election. Cameron might in certain circumstances decide to soldier on as prime minister of a minority government. But it’s much more plausible that he’d respond to a Lib Dem walk-out by going to the country. And that is something the Lib Dems will not want for as long as their support is in the doldrums.

So my money is now on the coalition surviving until 2015. Which is when it could start to get really interesting. Let’s assume that in early 2015 the opinion polls are roughly as they are today – a daft assumption in many respects, I accept, but bear with me – with Labour on 41, the Tories on 38 and the Lib Dems on 10. Even with the government’s planned reduction of the size of the House of Commons, that would translate into a small overall Labour majority. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, would be reduced to a rump. How would Cameron respond?

Well, he might just shrug his shoulders and prepare for the election in the expectation that the Tories would overhaul the slim Labour lead during the election campaign and emerge with a Commons majority. That would cause him least grief with his own party – and it would probably work. But it would not be his only option. He could offer the Lib Dems an electoral pact.

Now, there are all sorts of electoral pacts. They can be formal or informal, national or local. There hasn’t been one in Britain, at least for Commons elections, for a very long time (except in Northern Ireland), but they used to be commonplace.

In the early years of the 20th century, Labour and the Liberals agreed not to stand candidates against one another in selected seats – an informal deal that allowed Labour to emerge as a serious electoral force. In 1918, the parties of David Lloyd George’s coalition put together a formal national electoral pact. In the 1920s, the Tories and the Liberals gave each other’s candidates free runs in selected seats to keep Labour out; and in 1931 and 1935, the parties supporting the National government did not stand against one another anywhere. Between 1939 and 1945 there was the wartime agreement among all the main parties not to oppose incumbent parties in by-elections, the so-called electoral truce; and from 1945 until 1959 the Tories and Liberals reverted to their 1920s practice of allowing one another free runs in selected seats to keep Labour out. There’s a strong case for arguing that this saved the Liberals from extinction in 1951: of the six Liberal MPs returned that year, only one, Jo Grimond in Orkney and Shetland, faced a Conservative opponent.

By 1959, Grimond had replaced the ineffectual Clement Davies as Liberal leader and the Tory-Liberal non-aggression pact had dwindled to a couple of seats. It was finally consigned to history by the Orpington by-election of 1962, in which the Liberal Eric Lubbock famously won what had been one of the Tories’ safest seats.

At least, that’s the way it seemed to just about everyone for nearly half a century. But just about everyone could be wrong. Unless there is a radical change in the opinion polls, Cameron has little to lose by offering the Lib Dems a selective non-aggression pact, and the Lib Dems have everything to gain. The Tories agree not to run against Lib Dem ministers and any sitting Lib Dem MP whose main challenger is Labour; and in return the Lib Dems withdraw from selected Labour-Tory marginals. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems do much better under such an arrangement than they would have without it, and the election results either in an outright Tory victory, in which case Cameron can decide whether or not to continue with the coalition, or a majority for the coalition parties, in which case it’s business as usual.

OK, it’s just speculation – but such a scenario is anything but implausible, and it should be setting Labour’s alarm bells ringing. That no one seems to have even thought about it speaks volumes of the cluelessness that is all-pervasive in the party’s upper echelons.

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