Jill Kirby: The challenges and opportunities the Conservatives have for the rest of their time in government
This has been a fractious year for the coalition, during which Nick Clegg's evident discomfort with his Conservative colleagues has gradually developed into full-blown resistance. His extraordinary face-pulling and muttering during the Autumn Statement, at the point when George Osborne dismissed the case for a mansion tax, showed that the Deputy Prime Minister no longer considered himself bound by collective responsibility. So it was no surprise this week when Mr Clegg announced his new approach to governing in coalition, in which he wants to see the Liberal Democrats openly differentiate themselves from the Conservatives.
His reckoning seems to be that, with a wipe-out at the polls looming for his party, he will risk breaking the rules of coalition if it's the only way to retain his party's identity. The obvious danger, of course, is that it simply brings forward the date of electoral meltdown. It's hard to believe that the new differentiation will garner enough votes to save the Liberal Democrats from oblivion. But it plainly gives official sanction to a policy of non-cooperation for the remainder of the coalition's period in government. If the House of Lords/boundary changes tit-for-tat debacle marked the end of the beginning of the coalition, then this speech surely represents the beginning of the end.
Mr Clegg's speech on Monday brought his party's negative campaigning tactics into the open, characterising Conservative ideas on Europe and on welfare as fantasy and extremism, by contrast with his party of “sensible” centrists. Conservatives need to fight back, but in order to make the positive case for their own policies they must, of course, have a clear idea of what those policies are. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have too often seemed on uncertain ground here. Preoccupation with fringe issues like gay marriage, David Cameron's butterfly habit of flitting from one subject (and speech) to another without developing a central theme, and a tendency to make eye-catching announcements that are subsequently dropped or even reversed, have made it difficult for even the most loyal supporter to grasp exactly what Conservatives currently stand for.
One Conservative minister who leaves his audience in little doubt about what he believes in is Michael Gove, whose interview in the Christmas edition of the Spectator should be read by every Conservative who is disheartened by the party's current performance. When asked by Fraser Nelson what the Conservatives must do to win the next election, he replies that there are Tories who are concerned with issues like whether “we need to have a better ground game in Worcestershire – and that’s great, I’m glad there are people like that. But my approach is to find the biggest issues that we face, make an argument that we think is right, try to carry as many people with us as possible.”
It's a great interview, packed with good sense and conviction politics. And the beauty of it is that, in Mr Gove's case, it's not just a soundbite to cheer the Tory faithful at the end of a trying year. The Education Secretary has earned the right to make bold statements of confidence in Conservative beliefs because he has spent the last two and a half years putting them into practice, notwithstanding the constraints of coalition. Which brings me to my second argument in favour of articulating and then pursuing real Conservative policies: it might actually be more effective than the politics of compromise. Michael Gove has a clear agenda, a strong minded chief of staff and a highly motivated team who share his aims. As a result, the Liberal Democrats in his team, and across government, have – most of the time – been carried along. As they have discovered, it's much harder to undermine a minister who knows exactly where he is going, who is always ready to explain – courteously but firmly – what his objectives are, and how his Conservative worldview informs those objectives.
My third and final reason for maintaining that the Conservatives will gain from boldness is that the central purpose of the coalition is palpably failing. The justification offered for entering into shared government was that, together, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would take the tough decisions necessary to eliminate the deficit, slash the national debt and restore the economy to growth. But the reality is that continual horse trading between two partners with very different ideologies has resulted in stagnation. Significant cuts in current spending, pro-growth tax cuts, job deregulation and faster welfare reform are all necessary components of economic revival. The Chancellor needs to be able to argue freely for these measures, explaining to voters that he is unhappy with the lack of progress so far. He must assure them that, unhindered by coalition, a Conservative government would be making much greater headway to recovery. The danger at present is that Mr Osborne and his party will go to the country at the next election with the economy still flatlining and the nation deeper in debt than ever. If they wait for the publication of the election manifesto, it will be too late to “make an argument and carry people with them” (to paraphrase the Education Secretary). Did the Conservatives not learn from their experience in 2010 that, as Lynton Crosby memorably puts it, the pig cannot be fattened on market day?
As the festive season approaches, Nick Clegg has made a Christmas offer to his party: rock the boat if you like, it's in your party's interests to do so. This open invitation to mischief establishes beyond doubt that we now have a coalition in name only. If the Conservatives do not seize this chance to present their own policies openly and confidently to the electorate, they cannot expect to gain a mandate to govern alone.