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Because of the way the Commons works, the Liberal Democrats may split. A group led by Clegg would then work with the Conservatives - and fight the next election on a common manifesto

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-12-11 at 11.49.18 I wrote on Wednesday about how the worst may be over for the Liberal Democrats - as far as votes in the Commons are concerned, at any rate.  The drama of last week's vote on tuition fees may not come again.  But this doesn't mean that the Liberal Democrats are out of the woods.  Rather, they're being drawn deeper and deeper into them.

Which is what the Commons is like - a forest full of "events, dear boy, events" - the unexpected, the unpredictable - which impact on its everyday business.  A political party has to make its journey through this forest as a band of brothers: its mood up and down by turns, troubled at the best of times, fractious at the worst, never entirely happy.

Its lowest common denominator is: it must stick together.  The Liberals have a poor historical record of doing so, as the Liberal Democrat History Group site describes.  Read its account of how -

  • During the 1880s, a group of Liberals peeled off from their party, and joined the Conservatives.  "The bulk of the Whigs, who had been gradually drifting away from the Liberal cause for some time, joined forces with a smaller group of radical MPs under Joseph Chamberlain to form the Liberal Unionist Party, which was eventually to fuse with the Conservatives. The Liberals lost the 1886 election and remained out of power for most of the next twenty years, apart from a minority administration in 1892-95."
  • During the 1920s, groups of Liberals left their party, joining the Conservatives and Labour.  "[Labour's status as a party of government]...provided further impetus for the defection of Liberals, from prominent former ministers to ordinary supporters, to both Conservatives and Labour. By 1924 Churchill was already on his way back to the Conservatives, whilst the Labour government included a number of former Liberal ministers in its ranks."
  • During the 1930s, the Liberals split three ways, with two of the factions joining the Conservatives - one of them becoming absorbed.  "Lloyd George, resigning the party leadership, led a small group, mostly comprising members of his family, which was firmly opposed to the coalition. The new leader, Sir Herbert Samuel, backed the coalition on condition that it remained true to free trade. A third faction, led by Sir John Simon (see photo above), promised unconditional support for the coalition. The 1931 election saw the new National Government returned with a huge majority, but it was a Conservative administration in all but name."

The ingested group became the National Liberals.  Post 1945, they fought the next five elections alongside the Conservatives, winning 17 seats in 1950, 19 in 1951, 21 in 1955 and 19 in 1959, "making them the larger of the two Liberal groupings in Parliament".  Two of Macmillan's Cabinet colleagues were Liberal Democrats. Michael Heseltine fought his first seat as a National Liberal.  The Party's last leader, David Renton, was John Major's predecessor in Huntingdon.  In 1968, it was merged fully with the Conservatives.

As readers know, John Major has called for the Coalition to become permanent Nick Boles wants a pre-election pact, as does Jacob Rees-MoggFrancis Maude has said that the Coalition's better than single-party government.  The Downing Street Strategy Unit may be scrapped, and replaced by the Policy Unit in which Conservatives and Liberal Democrats already work together.  There is no independent Conservative policy-forming structure.

It's hard to believe that Major would have written an article suggesting merger without first clearing it with Downing Street.  One can see the attractions of such a course for David Cameron.  One reading of an effective merger between the two parties is that it would be a re-running of history - Liberals yet again being swallowed up by the larger party.  Another is that it would enable Cameron to try making a modernised MacMillanism semi-permanent - to create a One Nation party of government in which his right was isolated.

There's nothing in this vision for Liberal Democrats - either as a party of the centre (which seems to be Clegg's vision) or as a party of the centre-left (which is, say, Simon Hughes's).  But this is to presume that the Liberal Democrats remain a united force.  And in the forest of Westminster, they're open to events - not necessarily the heart attack of last Thursday's vote, but the bodily wear and tear of picking their vulnerable way through the woods.

The Liberal Democrats are exposed not so much to a single calamity as to scores of mini-troubles: grumpy backbench speeches, small rebellions, MPs speaking out of turn, Bob Russell posturing, Farron and Hughes manovering at one end of the party, Laws and Browne operating at the other - while, outside, Liberal Democrat councillors lose seats and speak out.  And, all the while, Liberal Democrat Ministers will be toiling alongside their Conservative colleagues in the Ministries.  All this has the capacity to work away at the Party's divisions until it breaks up and falls apart.

Which way would the apples roll?  It's easy to imagine Vince Cable as a Minister in a Labour-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government, despite his role in composing and fronting the tuition fees policy.  It's possible to imagine smoothster Chris Huhne doing so, too, although he seems happy to have hit the Cabinet jackpot, and has been very sharp about Ed Miliband recently.  But it's hard to see Danny Alexander, George Osborne's co-axeman, having a place at the top table under a Labour-led Coalition.  And harder still to see Nick Clegg doing so, let alone continuing as Deputy Prime Minister.

If Britain were Germany, and the Commons the Bundestag with its almost circular Chamber, it would be otherwise, with Clegg poised to be the Hans-Dietrich Genscher of our times.  But it isn't, and the Commons is straight rows of benches that sets government against opposition.  The New Politics is MPs cutting deals after elections despite the manifesto pledges they've made before them.  In much of Europe, this scarcely raises an eyebrow.  In Britain last week, it exposed Clegg to screams of hatred, anger, ridicule and contempt.

Clegg, Alexander, Laws and Brown's natural destination is the Conservatives.  Hughes's, Farron's, Campbell's and Kennedy's is Labour.  The logic of the way the Commons works is taking them there.  The Liberal Democrats may resist that logic, and cling on as a single Party for the next five years.  But if they don't, and Cameron fights the next election alongside a Clegg rump, questions follow.  Would any programme on which they fight be more blue than the Coalition Agreement, or less?  Would Cameron flex his muscles, being the larger partner?  Or would he water down his policies to accomodate Clegg?  And which course would he really want to take, anyway?


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