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Paul Goodman MP: Why I want to kiss Sir Menzies

Goodman_paul_10 Paul Goodman MP is Shadow Minister for Childcare and MP for Wycombe.

I’m tempted to cover Sir* Menzies Campbell’s face with kisses.

Thank you, Sir Menzies!  By setting out five tests for Gordon Brown – and confirming that the Chancellor, if he meets them, “will have changed direction, and embraced Liberal Democracy” – Sir Menzies has effectively penned a key Conservative slogan for the next election: “Vote Liberal – and get Brown”.

And just to confirm that he meant what he said, “a party official suggested it was the first indication that Sir Menzies would be interested in forming a coalition if the Lib Dems held the balance of power”.

Why on earth did he do it?  Why did the Liberal leader tell Britain’s voters what the Westminster village already knows – namely, that the Liberal Democrats would never consent to form a coalition with the Conservatives?  (After all, Sir Menzies didn’t offer “five tests” to David Cameron, did he?)

Complex and convoluted answers will no doubt be offered.  Some will no doubt claim that Sir Menzies’ words were part of some cunning plan to win back voters who supported the Liberals at the last election but have since then drifted to Labour.

I doubt it.  More Liberal Democrat MPs have the Conservatives in second place than Labour.  They held or won their seats in 2005 by attracting centre-right voters.  There’s already a limit to the number of Labour votes that they can squeeze (especially with core Labour voters looking to return to or stick with Brown).  There’s no point in alarming these centre-right voters by reminding them that in a hung Parliament Sir Menzies would angle for a coalition with the next Labour Prime Minister.

My explanation’s simple.  Sir Menzies, like the late John Smith, is a centre-left lawyer from north of the border.  And like John Smith and like Donald Dewar, the Liberal leader is of the generation of centre-left Scottish politicians who worked together to bring about devolution.
The fruits of devolution, of course, already include a Lab-Lib coalition in Scotland.  Lib-Labbery and Lab-Libbery is, as the cliché has it, in Sir Menzies’s DNA.  And can any ConservativeHome reader name another senior left-of-centre Scottish MP who, like the Liberal leader, sits for a Scottish seat, and was also instrumental in forcing through devolution?  Clue for the baffled: have a look at the top Ministerial slot on the Treasury website.  We should all want to kiss Sir Menzies for spelling his plans out so clearly. 

All this puts ConservativeHome’s recent “Warning: Lib-Con Pact ahead” items in perspective.  At which point, let me get a ritual sentence out of the way.  Here it is: naturally, I believe that the Conservative Party can win the next election.  With some recent polls clocking us in at about 40 per cent, and with an election perhaps as long as three years away, that’s a statement of the obvious.

Another such statement is that a hung Parliament next time round is possible.  One or two Conservatives have already floated the idea of Con-Lib co-operation in such an event – citing some common ground on civil liberties, pensions, localism, and the environment.

They’ve a point.  At Westminster, Con-Lib co-operation already takes place, at a small c conservative estimate, at least once a week – namely, when Conservative MPs walk through the lobbies with Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against the Government.  I’m less likely to find myself in the same lobby with Sir Menzies than I am with David Cameron, but it’s been known to happen.

But co-operation doesn’t mean coalition.  After all, consider what draws Conservatives and Liberals away from each other, as well as what brings them together.  As well as civil liberties, consider crime and sentencing.  As well as pensions, mull over proportional representation.  As well as localism, think about patriotism and foreign policy.  And as well as the environment, there’s Europe – that’s to say, policy on the European Union.

In other words, for every issue on which Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agree, there’s likely to be another (or more than one other) on which they disagree.  For every Orange Booker, there’s at least one Simon Hughes.  And then there are the views of our activists to consider.  Yes, in a few councils – where foreign policy, on the whole, isn’t an issue - Con-Lib coalitions can be found.

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.  One the whole, the Liberal activists don’t like us.  And have you tried asking the average Conservative activist what he or she thinks of the red-in-red areas, blue-in-blue areas, council tax-raising, service-botching, Focus-distributing, gallery-playing, pose-striking, bandwagon-jumping and truth-bending average Liberal Democrat activist?  These mutual relations are not the stuff of which coalitions are made.

I can just about stretch my imagination to conceive of a pact at Westminster in which the Liberal Democrats don’t bring down a minority Conservative Government.  But it would have to be a pact on our terms, not theirs.  No local income tax.  No kneejerk attacks on our most important ally abroad.  No proportional representation.  No European constitution.  Having upped our numbers at an election while Labour downed theirs, we’d be in a good position to dictate terms.

What’s now clear, though, is that even if my imagination can be stretched in this way, Sir Menzies’ can’t.  (“Are the Conservatives up to this same challenge?  Of course not.”)  Just as David Steel shored up Jim Callaghan in the Lib-Lab pact of the late 1970s, so Sir Menzies wants to prop up another briefly-serving Labour Prime Minister.

I read that Ed Davey, Sir Menzies’ “Chief of Staff”, is running around trying to limit the damage.  No wonder.  The Conservatives are second in Mr Davey’s seat – as they are in David Laws’, and Vince Cable’s and Nick Clegg’s.  If the Orange Bookers are unhappy with Sir Menzies’ left-leaning policies as well as with his tactical acumen, they know what to do.

*Footnote: Sir Menzies is apparently uncomfortable about being referred to as Sir Menzies.  He should be made uncomfortable at every opportunity.


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