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Can the Coalition be rebooted?

By Tim Montgomerie
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Forget for a moment that most of us didn't want to be here. Most Tory members didn't approve of the kind of changes Cameron made to the Conservative Party. Most Tory members didn't think much of the awful Tory election campaign. Most Tory members wanted to govern as a minority government, not as coalition. Most Tory members then wish we'd pursued a more ambitious growth plan.

In summary --- The wrong modernisation. The wrong election campaign. The wrong post-election strategy. The wrong economic policy. Those four things are all true but we are where we are. Can the Coalition be saved?

Restart 2

Let's be clear, it needs to be saved. If there's an election now there's little chance of an outright Tory majority. Who thinks we will go from 33% (our overnight rating) to 43% during an election campaign? It's possible, yes, but likely? Hardly. Certain? You must be joking. An election would be fought on the old boundaries. The likely result is a Labour-led government; either in partnership with the Cable-Farron-Hughes wing of the Lib Dems or with Ed Miliband enjoying his own Commons majority. Ed Balls would be Chancellor.

What cannot be allowed to continue, however, is for the Coalition to carry on as it has been. We are only just two years into this supposedly five year arrangement and the rebelliousness of Tory backbenchers, in particular, is a huge threat. If I'd been in parliament I would have joined the 91 Tory rebels (full list here) in opposing a reform that would have seen senators elected by PR to extraordinary fifteen year terms. Paul Goodman blogs that half of all Conservative backbenchers didn't support their government yesterday. I don't know of any Tory ministers (except Mark Harper) who either supported the Lords Bill or supported it with enthusiasm. But David Laws is right. There is now a risk of a "chain reaction" with Lib Dems retalliating against other Coalition projects (Downing Street is convinced the boundary review is in serious peril) in response to the huge backbench failure to support Clegg's Lords plan. Unless something changes every member of the Coalition will become more and more miserable. Rebellions will become bigger and more regular. Tensions between and within the two parties will grow. The electorate will hate the acrimony and drift and will punish both Liberal Democrats and Tories when the opportunity arises.

I'm not optimistic that the Coalition can be restarted but Cameron and Clegg need to realise the seriousness of the situation. I think there's also enough residual goodwill for any serious effort to have a chance of success. Some Tory rebels kicked Cameron with relish last night but my impression is that most did so with regret. What can be done?

I divide some very initial thoughts into two parts: changes to the Coalition and changes to the Conservative Party.


  • The Coalition can be run on the basis of neither side getting very much or both sides being willing to make big trades. Lowest common denominator Coalition or a Grand Bargain Coalition. In the rose garden stage we were in grand bargain territory but no more. One such big trade to regain momentum would be a double referenda. Tories get one on the EU and the Lib Dems get one on the Lords. Another big trade would involve pressing ahead with gay marriage in return for a recognition of marriage in the tax system. I'd also suggest moving forward on English votes for English laws (in the Coalition Agreement but not given priority) to boost Tory morale and in return something for the Lib Dems.
  • The frontbench needs new life. Two Lib Dems that would certainly help the Conservative Party to see a future in the Coalition are David Laws and Jeremy Browne. Could they get big promotions without the left-wing of the Lib Dems being upset?
  • Reaffirmation of the good things the Coalition is doing... Enhancing the basic pension... Cutting the deficit by a quarter already... Getting our schools match-fit... Cutting the welfare bills... Introducing unprecented localism and transparency to government... Downing Street desperately needs a strategic head of comms who will take four or five big themes and worry about bringing each constantly alive. There's too much short-term media management at the moment. The big picture is lost in the muddle.
  • Fourth and most important there needs to be a relaunch of the Coalition's economic policy. Austerity isn't enough. Where is the ten year plan to ensure Britain can compete with India, China and Germany? I still have faith in George Osborne to make a big move but faith is close to exhaustion. Can he come up with a growth agenda that we can all believe in? Perhaps with Laws as Business Secretary and Cable moved to Health? We desperately need a sense that the government is doing big things on growth.


David Cameron needs to find a way of better managing his own party. The most important thing he needs to work on is a plan for victory at the next election. Winning a majority will be tough but he needs to communicate he wants to win (only 19% of party members think he currently has a plan).

The PM also needs to run a more balanced and inclusive team. He needs more of the best people in Number 10. Why isn't Neil O'Brien head of policy? Danny Finkelstein head of strategy? Ian Birrell chief of staff? Matthew Elliott co-ordinating big campaigns? When he reshuffles the frontbench he should be putting people like Mark Field and Graham Brady into big positions to prove he wants the whole party reunited. He will have limited opportunities to promote many of the hugely talented and thoughtful Class of 2010 to ministerial positions but he could be creative in how he uses them. What about, for example, a brains trust to help with the manifesto? Including the likes of Liz Truss, Amber Rudd, Chris Skidmore, Dom Raab and, yes, Jesse Norman. A dozen or more MPs could be used to help run the kind of internet strategy that the party currently lacks.

Will any of this be enough? Something like it should stop the Coalition collapsing. It will take something more to make it half happy again.


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