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Commentary 355 – September 2012
16 September 2012 (22:38:05)

BACK TO THE DARK SIDE

September’s government reshuffle marked the end of David Cameron’s attempts to detoxify the Tory brand.

The Nasty Party is back and, for Liberal Democrats, the coalition has at once become both harder to defend and, when the time comes, easier to leave.

In 2010, it was possible to believe that David Cameron and his allies would drag the Tories back from the Thatcherite wilderness they had inhabited for 13 years and govern as – at least in Tory terms – relative liberals.

No more. The Tory half of the reshuffle marked as plain a shift to Thatcherism as can be imagined, typified by the sacking of Ken Clarke at Justice and his replacement by headbanging mediocrity Chris Grayling.

Maybe if the coalition’s economic policy had worked, things would not have come to this. Had Cameron delivered growth, or clear signs of recovery, his MPs would shut up about their prejudices if they thought he looked a winner in 2015.

Since paying down the deficit, the return of growth and the end of spending cuts all continually recede into the dim future, Cameron does not look like a winner and this reshuffle shows he does not even think himself to be one; he is the prisoner of Tory extremists no longer willing to shut up and toe his line, and lacks the authority to deal with them.

The Tories now resemble nothing so much as Labour in the late 1970s. A party with no majority, in power only thanks to an accommodation with Liberals, led by a few ostensibly reasonable people beneath whom is a seething mass of backbench ideologues wedded to unworkable and unpopular dogmas, and behind them a mass of even madder local activists.

Labour courted public disgust then by being tied to Marxist-minded union leaders; the Tories do likewise now with their close affinity to City spivs.

One should not push this parallel too far, but the spectacle of Tory right-wingers who would rather be ideologically correct losers than pragmatic winners is somewhat like Labour in 1979. With any luck, a 15-year ideologically correct wilderness awaits the Tories after 2015.

The Coalition Agreement may be sacrosanct, but this new batch of Tory ministers will try to pull policy in Thatcherite directions as much as they can. Tories will also be seeking to position their party for the next election by talking up the policies they hope to promote then.

Since it is already hard enough for the public to discern the difference between the government’s policy and the policies of its constituent parties, this risks the Liberal Democrats becoming associated with the harshest extremities of Tory ideology, unless they make it clear they are not.

That in turn means the Liberal Democrats will have to shout about their differences with the Tories a great deal louder than during the misconceived ‘rose garden’ phase of the coalition.

Being obliged to stress such differences more often and more clearly is a positive of sorts, and since even the most pro-coalition Liberal Democrat MPs do not actually want to lose their own seats, they must stop being muted in their misgivings as the Tories grow ever worse.

But meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats in government will be forced contort themselves to defend ever less defensible policies as the newly emboldened Tory right seizes its chance.

If the coalition’s economic policy continues to lead to nothing but a recession, it may be that both its constituent parties are doomed and nothing can rescue them.

Saving Liberal Democrat seats will depend on putting distance between the party and the Tories, and on making the right call on when to leave the coalition to fight the next election independently.

Nobody knows how to carry out that manoeuvre correctly, since no-one in any party has ever previously had to do it. Lords Smith and Greaves discuss possible approaches in this issue of Liberator.

There appears to be some consensus that the Liberal Democrats need to be out of the coalition by the election run-up. ‘How’ remains an unanswered question. There is no consensus, though, on the position of Nick Clegg and whether he is too tainted to lead the party at the next election. That election is, in political terms, a long way off and much can happen. What there ought to be is a consensus on is that it would be absurd to change leader now.

If Clegg stood down tomorrow, his successor would be ‘tainted’ by the next election by having had to go along with whatever outrages the Tories intend to perpetrate between now and then, in which case such a change would have become wholly pointless from an electoral perspective.

It may be that a new leader is needed for the next general election. The logic of seeking an at least relatively ‘untainted’ figure is that he or she should be new to voters and lack damaging baggage from coalition times.

Since no-one chosen this year or next could possibly fulfil these conditions, what is the point of the current speculation?

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