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Cameron moves to stop Mandelson - and govern Britain

I wrote very recently an analysis of David Cameron's three options for dealing with the Liberal Democrats given a hung Parliament here.

Option one was to offer Clegg a formal coalition and PR.

Option two was to govern alone if necessary, but to say -

"I'm more than willing to reach an accommodation with the Liberal Democrats in the national interest. I'm open to any ideas and suggestions he puts forward.  I'm willing to make sacrifices and compromises if necessary.  I've always said that I'm a liberal Conservative, and I'm offering him the chance to join me in a change coalition.  I am of course willing to govern alone if necessary but, Nick, my door is open."

Option three was to offer Clegg option two - but, in addition, a referendum on PR.

In the wake of Cameron's statement, some MPs and members will worry that Cameron's opted for option one. I believe that he's opted for option two.  My reasoning's as follows -

* Cameron didn't offer a coalition, formal or otherwise.  He offered "confidence and supply" or "stronger and more collaborative government".  The first isn't coalition - since coalition means Cabinet seats - though the second could be. Clegg will be wary of these: they mean becoming entangled in a Tory Government. Cameron will be cautious, too, because Liberal Democrat Ministers could mean a Shadow Cabinet revolt or a leadership challenge.  It's in the interests of both leaders' to cook up a fudge.

* Cameron insisted on a start to deficit reduction.

* He stressed that the 'bulk" of the Conservative manifesto must be implemented.

* He reiterated his line on Europe, immigration, and defence.  That looks like a commitment to Trident, no amnesty for illegal immigrants and - most challengingly - his manifesto position on the EU.  Team Cameron know that these are talismanic symbols to activists of real conservatism - which is why he stressed them. The point about a possible leadership challenge or Shadow Cabinet revolt is too obvious to need repetition.

* He didn't pledge PR, or even a referendum.  Instead, he floated a committee of inquiry.  This could be a royal road to STV or AV Plus for the Commons...but it looks far more like a talking shop, or a route to an elected Upper House.

A question follows: why's all this necessary?  Since Brown's clearly on the way out, why doesn't Cameron simply get on with it - and offer to govern alone?

I'd suggest the following reasons -

* As I wrote earlier here, Clegg's offered Cameron the keys to Downing Street.

* Brown's statement earlier this afternoon was a frantic attempt to head Clegg off and cling to power.

* Team Cameron's prime aim today is to keep Clegg on-side, stop Brown in his tracks, and - above all - move stealthily towards a glittering prize.  That prize is to kill and bury Roy Jenkins' ambitious plan to realign British politics.

Jenkins believed that the 20th Century had been a century of conservatism, in which the left had been divided.  The latter part of his life's work was to heal this divide, get PR, form a "progressive coalition" and shut the Conservatives out of power for a generation.

Blair admired this vision - but wasn't willing to risk his government to bring it about.  Mandelson fervently believes in it.  For many years, Brown blocked it.  During the last few days, Mandelson seems finally to have talked a desperate Brown round.  A hung Parliament, the first for over 30 years, holds out the tantalising prospect of making realigment reality.  Cameron and Osborne are determined not to let it happen - and for their Party to be locked out of Downing Street for perhaps a generation.

* But there's a twist,  They, too, want realignment.  Both know their politics and history.  They're mindful of how the left was divided before the rise of Labour.  Liberal Unionism split the old Liberal Party, and allowed parts of it to be absorbed into the...yes, into the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Mandelson's antics this week are like a powerful move on a chessboard.  This afternoon, Cameron risked a bold counter-attacking riposte.  Fun and games, perhaps.  But played with deadly serious intent.  Both are moving to absorb as much of the Liberal Democrats as they can.  Because long-term dominance in the Commons is at stake.  And such dominance is the most sure means of turning ideas in measures - in government.

Paul Goodman


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