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Could the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats merge to fight the next election as a single force?

By Paul Goodman

Cameron and Clegg - studious This morning's papers report yesterday's political Cabinet, which sought to answer the question: how can the Liberal Democrats be rescued?  The Prime Minister faces a dilemma.  He wants his partner's poll ratings to go up, but he doesn't want his own to go down.  A logical response is to allow the Liberal Democrats to take votes off Labour by moving - or at least talking - left.  But that would pose another problem: certain Government disunity, possible Commons rebellions.  Tim's view is that this pressure will pull the Coalition to the left - or it'll fall apart.  Mine is that Cameron and Clegg are being tugged in two directions - one way by the Liberal Democrat rank and file, the other way by Tory backbenchers and party members.

So how to resolve the problem?  It's worth noting the solution recently floated by Michael Portillo on "This Week" and picked up by Mike Smithson on Political Betting - namely, that the two parties fight the next election as "The Coalition".  Smithson suggests that in Conservative-Labour marginals, the Tory candidate would be branded as "Coalition Conservative", with no Liberal Democrat standing, and that in Labour-Liberal Democrat marginals the Liberal Democrat candidate would be branded as "Coalition Liberal Democrat", with no Conservative standing. "What happened in CON-LD marginals would have to be argued about," he writes.

The electoral calculations are complex and the political permutations almost endless.  As Smithson points out, this scenario would more easily apply under first past the post than the alternative vote.  Some will dismiss the possibility out of hand.  A few will welcome the idea.  Others will suspect the Party leadership of plotting precisely such an arrangement.  There'll be a way, during the coming months, of working out which way the wind's blowing.  As I've pointed out before, there's a policy-making process in place for the Coalition - namely, a Downing Street Policy Unit with Conservatives and Liberal Democrats working together - but none for the Party.

As I've previously reported, the Party Board is considering involving members in the policy-making process.  The 1922 Committee has five new backbench committee Chairmen as of this week - and they may lend a hand.  Graham Brady, its Chairman, is sure to be keeping an eye on events.  The quicker Downing Street gets a Conservative policy process going, the more swiftly claims of a planned merger can be put to rest.


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