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Three reasons to respect the Liberal Democrats

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-05-16 at 07.05.17

This isn't a great time for relations between the Coalition partners.

Which set me thinking: is there any reason at all for Conservatives to respect the Liberal Democrats?

I can think of three.
  • They're playing their part in helping to eliminate the structural deficit.  Getting Britain's finances back in good shape is the Government's main mission.  If it's successful, they'll therefore be able legitimately to claim some of the credit.
  • Their Ministers are working well alongside ours.  Say what you like about Huhne and Cable (and I've said a certain amount about the latter, see here, here and here): they haven't wavered about the need for deficit reduction.  Nick Clegg may not like Andrew Lansley's health reforms, but Conservatives can have no complaints about the way Paul Burstow's worked alongside the Health Secretary.  Sarah Teather is beavering away at the Education Department. Above all, Danny Alexander has knuckled down to the task of controlling spending at the Treasury.  I even hear the occasional good thing about Norman Baker at Transport.  All in all, it's remarkable how little one reads about Coalition Ministers of one colour briefing against those of another - below Cabinet level, anyway.  Indeed, given the bad relations between the two parties until Coalition, it's little short of astonishing.  Again, Liberal Demorat Ministers should be honoured no less than Conservative ones for the good things the Government's doing collectively.
  • Not so long ago, the Liberal Democrats were unambigously a party of the left...  When I was growing up, the Liberal Democrats were unambiguously a party of the left.  Look at its ranks in the House of Lords, and you'll find massed the Liberal and SDP leaders of that era: Shirley Williams, Paddy Ashdown, David Steel.  The main mind behind the modern Liberal Democrats, Roy Jenkins, was one of the British left's main post-war figures.  In the Commons, too, this tradition continues: consider Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy - two party leaders, no less.  Then, elsewhere on the green benches, there's Tim Farron, Simon Hughes, Bob Russell, Adrian Sanders; off them, there's Evan Harris - not to mention a mass of left-leaning councillors and party activists.  Liberal Democrat positions on the constitution, the EU, criminal justice and immigration are far nearer Labour's than ours.
  • ...But since then, they have moved to the right - at least on the economy.  None the less, there's also Danny Alexander, as I said.  And Jeremy Browne.  As well as Nick Clegg, who in polls of ConservativeHome readers scores more highly than many Conservative Cabinet Ministers.  Whatever one thinks of him, David Laws requires a mention here.  It's no use pretending that these "Orange Bookers" - as they're crudely though inexactly labelled - are closet socialists.  They help to show how on economic matters (as opposed to social and constitutional ones), the Liberal Democrats have moved to the right.  Long gone are the days when they wanted to lump a penny on income tax to pay for "schools and hospitals".  Instead they now propose tax cuts for lower paid workers.  I was struck when comparing the two parties' manifestos during the general election - ConservativeHome was on the lookout for a possible Cameron-Clegg deal before the results came in - how similar the two parties' thinking on the economy and, to some extent, on public services now is.

In short, the Liberal Democrats have moved from left of the centre of British politics (from which they'd only be able to support Labour in Parliament) to nearer the centre (from which they're be able to support either main party).  This is definitely a good thing for voters.

It's generally a bad thing for the Conservative Party - because the Liberal Democrats are encroaching on to some of our electoral territory.  However, there are compensations: after all, the Liberal Democrat move to economic realism has made the coalition possible, and provided a stable platform for deficit reduction.

This isn't to say that we should like the Liberal Democrats.  We shouldn't.  Or that a coalition's better than governing on our own.  It isn't.  After the next election, I want a majority Conservative Government, not another coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

But it's worth bearing in mind that we may not get what we want: after all, we didn't do so last May.  Which leads me to a last reason for writing this article.  I don't want the Liberal Democrats to be driven into the welcoming arms of Miliband.  I want the option of a future deal with the Liberal Democrats in our back pocket - just in case we ever need it.


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