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Prof Tim Bale: Even Churchill considered an electoral pact with the Liberals in the 1950s

Picture 3 Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Sussex University and is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, an updated version of which is published in paperback this week.

It should come as no surprise that one of the Conservative Ministers most comfortable with seeing the Party’s relationship with the Lib Dems extended is Francis Maude.  It’s not simply because he can fairly claim to have been a Cameroon before Cameron.  It’s also because he was one of the first Tories in recent years fully to appreciate the fact that Britain’s third party has long been one of the biggest obstacles to the Conservatives winning or retaining power.  A brief look back through the Party’s post-war history suggests he was in good (indeed the best) company: anyone worried that David Cameron might yet do some sort of deal with the Lib Dems at the next election should read on.

In an article for the Telegraph, jointly authored with Stephen Dorrell, which appeared just days after the 2005 general election, Maude claimed that at the heart of the Party’s inability to overhaul the Blair government was ‘our failure to compete effectively with the Liberal Democrats for the anti-Labour vote.’  Instead of operating under the ‘self-serving delusion’ that the Lib Dems were nothing more than ‘a wish list in a woolly jumper, and that this view is widely shared by the voters’, the Conservative Party had to realise that ‘they have been more successful at expressing the aspirations of modern [and especially urban] Britain.’  Unless the Tories changed their tune and their tone it would be ‘impossible for us to substantiate our claim to be to be a national party’ and ‘impossible for the Conservatives to achieve a majority in the House of Commons.’

As it turned out, David Cameron’s campaign to effect that change of tune and tone, much of which – at least in its early stages – was presaged on the idea of ‘love bombing the Lib Dems’, failed to convince sufficient voters and the Conservatives fell short once again.  Unable to convert enough Lib Dem voters before the election, Cameron did the logical thing and effectively mopped them up after it by bringing his erstwhile opponents into coalition.  Whether the long term intention was finally to bring about the supposedly ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ Conservatism that Cameron had long talked about, or (in more Machiavellian style) to lure the Lib Dems into a fatal embrace that would see them so hopelessly compromised that they would lose support and eventually split, is a moot point.  What surely matters most is that, at last, something has been done to resolve a problem that has arguably, on several occasions in the post-war period, cost the Conservative Party Ten Downing Street.

It is a common canard to blame Labour’s pathetic performances throughout the 1980s on the Alliance which the breakaway SDP formed with the Liberals – the precursor to today’s Liberal Democrats.  In fact, it is just as likely that the Alliance, rather than splitting the ‘progressive’ vote, provided a bolt-hole for former Labour voters who might otherwise have abstained or jumped straight to the Conservatives, giving the latter even bigger majorities than they achieved anyway.  Of course, the thumping victories won by Mrs Thatcher were already so large that the votes won by Britain’s third force were nowhere near enough to endanger her hold on power – except, one might observe, near the end, when its by-election victories helped set in train the process that led to her being got rid of by her own MPs.

Ironically, fifteen years before that, Mrs Thatcher – but not her predecessor or indeed her Party – can be said to have benefitted from the strong performance of the Liberals at the two elections held in 1974.  In 1970, Ted Heath won a magnificent victory, turning a Labour landslide into a healthy working majority.  In that year, the Liberals took just 7.5% of the vote.  In 1974, however, with disillusion with both the big two running at what was then an all-time high, they took 19.3% and 18.3% respectively – enough (once his attempts to negotiate some kind of coalition fell apart) to prise Heath out of Number Ten and then to have him branded a loser who simply had to be replaced, even if meant bringing in ‘that woman’. 

In 1964, it was the man from whom Heath took over, Alec Douglas-Home, who suffered at the hands of the Liberals.  Having succeeded an ailing Harold Macmillan in controversial circumstances, Home almost pulled off a miracle, coming within a whisker of overtaking Harold Wilson’s Labour Party at the last gasp.  That he ultimately failed to do so had little to do with Labour, which only improved its vote share by 0.3% on the previous election, but everything to do with the Liberals, who improved theirs from 5.9% to 11.2%, effectively mopping up most of the 6% drop in Tory support.

Throughout most of previous decade, the Liberals had been in the doldrums.  But that disguised the fact that but for their intervention, the Conservatives may well have been able to overhaul Labour’s massive majority of 1945 at the first, rather than the second, time of asking.  In 1951, when Churchill returned to power, the Liberals took only 2.5% of the vote.  The year before, they took 9.1%.  This – and the fact that they stood candidates in a vastly larger number of seats – helped ensure that Labour, though exhausted, divided and highly unpopular with the middle classes, was able to cling on to power for another eighteen months.

What is interesting, if one examines the Party archives in Oxford, is how seriously the Conservative leadership of the time (and in particular Churchill, who after all had been a Liberal and personally fond of many of that persuasion) took the threat posed to them by the third party.

In 1947 the Woolton-Teviot pact resulted in an effective merger between the Tories and what remained of the ‘National Liberals’ who had broken away from the Liberal Party to participate in the pre-war coalition run under Baldwin and then Chamberlain – a merger finally and formally completed in 1968 (although not before a young Michael Heseltine had stood – unsuccessfully – as a National Liberal in the general election of 1959).

But that left the Liberal Party proper.  Inside Central Office there was a big debate between some who believed, following a detailed post-mortem on the 1950 election, that some sort of deal had to be done to prevent the Liberals spoiling Tory chances next time around, and those who argued that it was a non-starter.  According to the latter, the Party was best off relying on the fact that the Liberals had run out of money and wouldn’t be able to field sufficient candidates to cause the Conservatives a problem in the near future.

Churchill himself was clearly in the former camp, ordering his lieutenants to investigate the possibility of a deal based on the overlaps in policy and principle between the two parties (sketched out in a document drafted by Harold Macmillan), a promise to look at electoral reform, and a list of seats in which Conservatives candidates would stand down and endorse Liberals and vice versa.  Those lieutenants, principally Rab Butler and Lord Woolton, the Party Chairman, had some sympathy with their boss’s position – Woolton for example used the Conservative Central Council Meeting (what is now called the Spring Forum) in April 1950 to call explicitly for an ‘anti-socialist front’. 

But there were limits.  In September 1950, aware that the Liberal’s leader, Clement Davies, was doubtful if not actively hostile, and believing (probably rightly) that the vast bulk of the Conservative Party in the country would never consent to a stand-down arrangement, Woolton had a furious argument with Churchill, who appeared to have gone behind the backs of his by-now sceptical colleagues to see if some sort of deal could still be pulled off.

Eventually, the Tory Leader accepted defeat and managed in any event to secure an overall majority at the next election.  Many visitors to ConservativeHome will no doubt be hoping that David Cameron, despite the fact that he may find it much harder than Churchill to win outright, will do the same.


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