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Graeme Archer: Time for some politics of 'and'?

Well, that's a cheeky title, because 'The Politics of And' is copyright Tim Montgomerie, editor of this site, and I'm going to disagree with Tim's articles this morning, both here, and in greater detail at The Times (£). In his discussion of the future of the Coalition, he presented an Either/Or: either we fight the next election as what he called 'Mainstream Conservatives', or we fight as a Coalition with the Lib-Dems. I think this choice is too restrictive, unnecessarily so.

Since I'm in the middle of the tortuous process of the no-doubt futile attempt to retain my place on the approved list of parliamentary candidates, let me be plain at the start. I don't advocate infinite Coalition with the Lib-Dems (as they are, now) and I'd love it were David Cameron governing with a Tory majority of 100. But, to nod acquaintance at the old joke (a joke that's probably illegal these days): that's not where we're starting from. I'm beyond bored with the tortuous ping-pong about why we didn't win in 1997, 2001 and 2005 (We were too right-wing! No, you fool, we weren't right-wing enough! Oh don't be stupid, it was obvious we weren't sufficiently right-wing! etc) and only slightly more interested in the competing, untestable hypotheses to explain the lack of a majority in 2010 (We weren't right-wing enough! no, you fool! etc). If you don't like David Cameron, you will think one thing. If you are quietly impressed with his premiership and his vision, you will think another. Let's leave that there, and think about what's next.

At the next election, two things (at least) will be happening simultaneously. Distinct political parties will seek a mandate to govern, unimpeded by Coalition (I'm assuming a No vote in the AV referendum, which, though I Calvinistically find all gambling to be immoral, feels like a safe bet). But Conservatives and Lib-Dems will also be defending the record of the Coalition government, against attacks by a Labour party. Whether you, or I, or any other activist Tory likes it or not, we will be facing a common political enemy.

Suppose you are a Tory PPC in that circumstance. Pick an issue which became government policy as a result of the fact of Coalition - perhaps the 'pupil premium' (though I think this was actually also Tory policy, and we've just kindly allowed the Lib-Dems to take credit for it, in order to help them placate their activist base; anyway assume that, as per current narrative, it's a Lib-Dem contribution to a Coalition policy). Do you say, in your electoral address, "I love the Tory bits of the education reform act, but I hope we can un-do the Lib-Dem bits" (or words to that effect)? Or do you say "I am so proud of what Michael Gove and the Coalition have achieved in education reform. I want that work to continue"? If you say the former, are you ready for the inevitable stream of questions from the local press about which other bits of the Coalition achievements you disdain and would seek to reverse, were the Conservatives to gain an overall majority? Is that how you'd like to spend the campaign?

Now think of the personal manifestations of this dilemma: the Liberals who are serving as ministers. I reserve a small hour of celebration in my future for the day that Simon Hughes is no longer an MP. If I wrote what I think about Simon Hughes, this piece wouldn't be published. But can you honestly say "I hope that Nick Clegg loses his seat at the next election"? Honestly? That there is a contradiction in your Tory soul because you think that Danny Alexander is an excellent Chief Secretary?

I don't think there is any contradiction. So what I suggest is this. Let us tacitly but deliberately encourage the gentle realignment of British politics, which has been occurring since last May. I've written here often enough about the anti-intellectual contradiction at the heart of the old Lib-Dem 'party', so I cannot regret now that, in front of our eyes, they are resetting themselves into their component parts, with a clear left-wing majority among their activists and backbenchers, but signs of Liberal integrity flickering back into life among a few of their ministers. Let the social democrats fight the election as Lib-Dems, and let us fight them as hard as we fight Labour. The Simon Hughes' of this parliament will not be defending the Liberal-Tory Coalition achievements anyway. But let us find some accommodation with those few senior Liberals (I'm thinking of no more than a handful) who are serving their country well, with whom we will be jointly defending the Coalition achievements against the socialists' attacks.

It's been done before, as Sir John mentioned in his speech last week. I don't see why it shouldn't be done again, and I don't see what is non-mainstream Conservative about wishing to see good Liberals continue their influence in government after the next election (we're, like, what, a party with no liberal tradition? I don't think so). My theory is that if they first sit with us, eventually they will be us. Renewal comes from outside as well as within, and our party's ability to remake itself is the reason why we remain - Coalition notwithstanding - the most successful democratic force the planet has ever seen. What has the Conservative party ever been, in any case, if not a Coalition? We revere both Peel and Disraeli. They weren't exactly the best of ideological soul-mates, you know, come 1846. The requirement to prove one's political purity through adherence to the tenets of some ideology belongs to the infantile Left. Leave it there, to fester in opposition, and don't stop good Liberals from continuing to work for good Conservative administrations.


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