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Whatever happened to "Together in the national interest?"

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by Paul Goodman

The person most to blame for allowing speculation about a pact at the next election between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to get out of hand isn't Nick Boles, John Major, or even Francis Maude: it's David Cameron.

His reasoning has less to do with any medium-term stategy about how to broaden his electoral base, win the next election, isolate his right, and re-create a modernised version of the Macmillan conservatism of the 1950s than short-term tactics.  He believes, probably rightly, that if Clegg's party is hammered in Oldham East and Saddleworth next week the coalition will be weakened.  Hence his ambivalent earlier remarks about wishing the Liberal Democrats well in the by-election.

He underestimated the reaction they'd provoke and spurred Mark Pritchard, a senior 1922 Committee officer, into warning of a "purple plot" to stitch up a pact behind the Party's back.  His visit to the by-election yesterday was thus partly intended to calm the waters that he himself had helped to stir.  Not that excitement should get out of hand in any case.  A pact could happen.  But it shouldn't, and probably won't, because the obstacles to it happening are formidable.

I'll explain in detail next week why this is so, both from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat points of view, and why it's an error to presume that the only options at the next election are the status quo or an electoral pact.  I'll also explore the force that gives the pact rumours its impetus - namely, the distrust which much of the Parliamentary Party has for their leader.  Indeed, it's not going too far to say that, fairly or unfairly, he has a trust deficit unmatched by any post-war Conservative leader.

In the meantime, it's worth looking at the pact rumours from a new angle - namely, by asking: is it likely that the two parties could speak with a single voice in the future if they can't do so now?

And let there be no doubt: for better or worse, they aren't doing so.  There's no sense whatsoever of the two parties joining together to fight a common enemy, Labour.  During the summer, Sayeeda Warsi and Chris Huhne gave a joint press conference blaming the Opposition for "Labour's legacy of waste".  They had a joint line and slogan: "One party  created this mess. Now our two parties h ave come together to clear it up."  They promised "a summer of scrutiny" of Labour.

As I've written before, no further joint scrutiny took place.  But the Party arrived at its October conference with a new slogan: "Together in the National Interest."  I liked it.  True, the idea of "the national interest" is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and can be adapted to suggest almost anything that its authors wish.  It always sounds to my ears as though it was dreamt up by senior civil servants - which, in this case, it possibly was. 

But the phrase has a powerful sublimal appeal.  It summarises for voters a rationale for the Coalition which it would otherwise lack.  None too subtly, it casts Labour as somehow working on their own for their own interests, while Conservatives and Liberal Democrats cast selfishness aside for the common good.   Bland and Baldwinesque, it has perfect pitch for a certain kind of English sensibility.  As part of the conference initiative, the Conservative Party's tree lost its green, was coloured red, white and blue - and remains so on the Party's website to this day (see above).

"Together in the National Interest", however, seems to have gone out of use.  At the time, it was worked into the conference speeches of Cabinet Ministers.  Your experience may be different from mine, but I haven't heard it much recently, and an internet search mostly turns out references to the Party Conference period.  Perhaps Number 10's taken against it for some reason.  Or perhaps Downing Street is reacting against the Alastair Campbell doctrine of repetition, repetition, repitition.

As I say, an election pact shouldn't happen.  But in the meantime, we are where we are - in government in a coalition which conservatives should get behind (though without losing their critical faculties in the process).  Since this is so, hearing a bit more of "Together in the National Interest" during this New Year would do the Governent do no harm at all.  And it's in the Party's interest for relations between the Liberal Democrats and Labour to be as tense as possible.

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