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Do Cameron and Osborne agree with Francis Maude that the Coalition should continue - even if the next Parliament has a Conservative majority?

By Paul Goodman

MAUDE-ON-POLITICS-SHOW During the summer, Nick Boles floated the possibility of the Coalition fighting the next election as a single force.  Today, Francis Maude is reported to have said that it should carry on afterwards - even if the Conservatives win outright.  Boles headed up Policy Exchange.  Maude helped set it up.  Is there a push in some parts of the Party for an eventual merger of the two parties, and is at shared at the top by David Cameron and George Osborne?

It's worth reading Maude's words.  The Mail on Sunday reports that he was speaking "at a private gathering", and there are no further details.  The Cabinet Office Minister is quoted as saying that the Coalition is a "bloody good thing", and that there is very little difference between the parties.  "Even if the Conservatives win a majority at the next Election, there will be a desire to continue with the Coalition among parts of the Conservative Party," he's quoted as saying.

My sense is that the view Party members take of the Liberal Democrats is growing more favourable.  Nick Clegg's name won applause when the Prime Minister cited it in Birmingham, a recognition of the Deputy Prime Minister's loyal role in working hard to help make the Coalition's case.  And just as Cameron and Clegg have been inseparable, so have Osborne and Danny Alexander.  This is a reminder of the yielding way in which the Liberal Democrats have signed up to a Conservative deficit reduction plan, and junked the economic platform on which they fought less than six months ago.

Some will claim that the stress on fairness during the budget and Comprehensive Spending Review presentation is a sign that Clegg's party has helped shape the strategy.  But the aim of eliminating the structural deficit in a Parliament, the raising of taxes as well as the reining back of spending, the special protection of the health and overseas aid budgets, the welfare reform plan, the schools spending rise - all these, the backbone of the CSR, were straight from the Osborne/Cameron textbook.

All this, and more, has been greeted - as James Forsyth noted yesterday - by silence to date from the Liberal Democrat left in Parliament.  No offstage noise from Bob Russell.  Nothing from Andrew George.  Not a peep from Simon Hughes (indeed, Hughes defended the CSR this week).  No big rebellion briefed to the Sunday papers.  It's as though Liberal Democrat MPs were being swept downstream by the sheer force of the tide - powered, in this case, by the adversarial way British politics lines up Government against Opposition, the collaborative work of Ministers, and counter-productive attacks on the Liberal Democrats by Labour.

Is there more to it than that?  Is Maude right to suggest that there's a deeper reason - that the two parties really have far more in common than either would have dared admit last May?  A sober examination of the two parties' manifestos would suggest not: here's mine from the election.  But manifestos aren't everything, especially when a later Coalition Agreement exists on paper, Ministers work together in practice, and government, like politics itself, continues to evolve.  Buried away in the Mail on Sunday's story is a significant detail.  The Coalition Committee created to resolve disputes, has met only twice: "once to 'say hello’ and once to discuss controversial health policies. Even at the second meeting there was no fall-out".

I want a majority Conservative Government.  Vince Cable is a stultifying influence on tax policy.  No-one likes Chris Huhne much.  The Coalition makes the prospect of EU renegotiations even more difficult.  The Liberal Democrats are a drag in policy matters that matter to the heart as well as to the head, such as immigration, crime, and the constitution.  But even here matters aren't so simple.  The prisons policy, for example, is being driven by Ken Clarke.  David Willetts and Michael Gove have been reported to have doubts about the workings of the immigration cap.  There's no sign that William Hague would have been up for a renegotiation push, even had the Party won a Commons majority.

Above all, it will be very hard to fight the election at a distance from the Liberal Democrats.  The two parties will have their fingerprints on the same spending scaleback axe.  Clegg will be questioned ceaselessly about who his party would go into Coalition with, who it would prefer to do so with, what he thinks of Labour's attacks on the record of the Government in which he served and the manifesto on which they're standing.  A joint Coalition ticket at the election could have one big benefit: a joint manifeso on which - if it won - the two parties could be held properly to account.  It's bad to have policies for which there's no mandate: the student finance part-tuition fee hike, part graduate tax, for example.

But as I say, a majority Conservative Government would be best.  None the less, what matters most isn't what some pestilential blogger thinks: it's what the Party thinks...and what the leadership thinks.  Is the Mail on Sunday story part of a long game and, if so, are they part of it?  Do Cameron and Osborne agree with Maude?  Do they think that the Liberal Democrats should be invited back into government, even if the next election returns a Conservative majority in the Commons?


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