In his Telegraph blog, Lord Tebbit briefly covers the upcoming Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election. Although his discussion is not (and is not intended to be) an in-depth analysis of that election or its ramifications, he does make the interesting assertion that he thinks that a Liberal Democrat victory would push the coalition further to the left. Having given it some thought, I have drawn the opposite conclusion.
From what I can tell, the chain of reasoning that leads to the conclusion drawn by Lord Tebbit is thus. Arithmetically speaking, adding a northern Liberal Democrat to the parliamentary coalition dilutes by a small factor the Conservative presence and tilts the balance of power towards the Liberal Democrats to some degree.
But beyond that, I can't see what else supports such a conclusion. Moreover there are several factors that lead one to the opposite conclusion altogether. First, there is the issue over how left-wing northern Liberal Democrats actually are. Although I can't find the article now, I read recently someone advising Labour not to treat LD voters as a homogeneous bloc, and that northern LDs were 'tough as nails' on certain issues such as crime and welfare fraud. So the very left-wingedness of Mr Watkins might be overstated.
More serious is the fact that a Liberal Democrat defeat is more likely to make or require the Conservative leadership to cede more ground to an increasingly panicked Liberal Democrat left. A powerful triumvirate of factors make this such a potent election for the Liberal Democrats: they were within a whisker of taking OE&S at the last election; the Labour candidate ran such a dirty campaign that he's led to the first court overturning of an election result in nearly a century; and by-elections have been the Liberal Democrat strong suit since Orpington in 1962. If they weren't in government, this election would probably be as close as they get to a sure thing outside of Orkney and Shetland.
So if they lose, the psychological consequences could be severe. It will cause further panic amongst the Liberal Democrat left who Nick Clegg apparently already considers "electorally dead". Be that as it may, in the current parliament they still have the ability to cause severe problems for the Coalition. If they become serial rebels or even defectors, the coalition is doubly hit: not only is its majority and credibility reduced, but every loss from one extreme weakens the opposite extreme at the expense of the centre and the leadership. Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and other right-wing Liberal Democrats will come under increasing pressure from their activists, councillors and left-wing MPs to make trouble for the coalition or leave altogether. Like it or not the country currently needs the stable government only the Coalition can offer and so for the country's sake the Conservative leadership would have to offer yet more carrots and inducements to the yellow left.
In short, a Liberal Democrat victory would make the Liberal Democrat left feel that the present balance was more palatable than it might otherwise seem, and a defeat would invigorate their resistance. Despite my pro-Coalition stance, this blogger is still a Conservative and so this realisation poses some problems for me. On the one hand, like any Conservative I want Kashif Ali to win in Oldham - I'm hopefully going to help out myself sometime next week. However, as a Conservative I also want to see minimal ground ceded to the social democrats within the LDs to keep the coalition going. Its a tough call to make.