In recent weeks, the prospect of the coalition parties operating some form of electoral pact at the next election has spurred considerable debate. Amongst the most vociferous response from Conservative ranks has been stark refusal to contemplate any form of cooperation or electoral arrangement whatsoever. Some have even prophesied that such an arrangement would herald the end of the party outright. Such an argument fails to take into account the long history of cooperation between the liberal and conservative traditions in British politics.
To briefly address the talk of mergers – a formal merger of the full Liberal Democrat party with our own would be highly uncomfortable and is also highly unlikely. However history provides plenty of examples of Liberal-Conservative cross-pollination. In the Twentieth Century, the Conservative Party has absorbed the Liberal right on no less than two occasions: Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists in 1912 and the National Liberal Party in 1968. Suffice to say, our party survived. Beyond that, cooperating with other parties of various stripes has been the Conservative modus operandi for the majority of the party’s existence. Even as far as the Sixties the Conservative parliamentary group consisted of people elected as National Liberals, Liberal Nationals and Unionists (both Ulster and Scottish) alongside their Conservative fellows.
As the pre-eminent party of the Right in British politics, the Conservative and Unionist Party remains a very broad church. What left-of-centre tendencies possessed by the Liberal orange bookers can scarcely be anathema to a party that contains Phillip Blonde’s Red Tories, and their economic liberalism fits very well into the party mainstream. Surely if Clegg, Laws and Alexander were operating as Conservatives, nobody would bat an eyelid.
That said, what then forms the basis for serious objection if the Conservatives were to stand aside in seats where such people were vulnerable? Is it a matter of labels? If so that is hardly consistent with Conservative policy elsewhere: as Owen Polley recently wrote, the Conservative Party currently appears to have reconciled itself with the Ulster Unionist Party acting as its ‘franchise’ in Northern Ireland. More importantly, commentators on ConHome and elsewhere have called for the Scottish Conservatives to be made an independent, allied party. This party would only have any real hope of success if it was seen to move leftward on certain issues, in which case the Conservative ally north of the border would scarcely be more alien than the right-leaning Liberal Democrat ministers with whom the party is sharing government – and one can quite well envisage Alexander fitting into such a party.
There may also be concrete advantages to offering non-compete arrangements to certain embattled Liberal Democrat ministers, both in governmental and party-political terms. Governmentally speaking, if senior Liberal Democrats felt secure in their position at the next election it would grant them more leeway to resist their own backbenchers, lessening the extent to which the coalition might be dragged leftwards by their influence. Such an offer might also induce senior Liberal Democrats to stick with the coalition even if their backbenchers walked out, which would strip a social-democratic Liberal Democrat revolt against the coalition of any recognisable figures who have gained stature through their time in government.
A full-fledged merger of the two coalition parties is unlikely. Conservatives should be careful not to allow the spectre of that prospect to lead them to reject making sensible compromises with our coalition partners.
Left to Right: Joseph Chamberlain, Sir John Simon, Nick Clegg, David Laws and Danny Alexander