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To Hell with the Lib Dems? Nope...

By Peter Hoskin
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“Screw the Lib Dems, and just do it anyway.” Ever since the Coalition was formed, the Tory leadership has been advised to do just that – but now, in these post-Eastleigh days, the words are becoming louder and more insistent. In its leader column today, for instance, the Daily Mail concludes that the public wants:

“…coherent ideas which can be implemented immediately – regardless of the objections of Lib Dems who, if they pulled the plug on the Coalition, would face electoral annihilation.”

In some ways, this argument is understandable. It’s true that the Lib Dems block Tory policy ideas, and – what’s more frustrating – sometimes those policy ideas are good ones, too. It’s also true that the Lib Dems would face “electoral annihilation” should they terminate the Coalition. Last week’s by-election victory notwithstanding, they’re currently stuck at around 10 per cent in polls. That’s not a level of support that Nick Clegg and his MPs will be eager to test.

And yet I don’t agree that the Tory leadership should just steamroller over the Lib Dems. There are two particular reasons.

First, it would go against the founding principles of the Coalition. This might sound a soppy sort of point, but it’s actually something more than that. If the Coalition Agreement is effectively annulled, then it’s not just the public’s dwindling trust in politics that is likely to be undermined. The Lib Dem’s faith in coalition with Tories, now and in the future, would be too – and that could carry disastrous implications in the event of another hung parliament. Far better for the Tories to achieve as much as possible within the political framework that has been imposed on them. That’s why I’ve suggested areas for intra-Coalition cooperation and concession in the past.

Second, is it really wise for the Tory leadership to even risk the Lib Dems “pulling the plug” right now? An election may not be welcomed by Mr Clegg’s party at the moment, but the same could be said for David Cameron’s. The Ukip threat hasn’t been nullified; Labour are 10 points ahead in the polls – this is not propitious ground for electoral brinkmanship. And even if it didn’t come to an election, constantly undermining the Lib Dems would surely weaken Nick Clegg’s leadership, with the negative consequences I noted last week. The fundamental point is that it could make a Labour government more likely – and that would, er, result in even fewer Tory policies being implemented.

Of course, none of this is to say that the Tory leadership should bow to every Lib Dem whim and demand – but the fact is, they don’t. And it’s likely that, as the election approaches and differentiation takes hold, they will fight even more vigorously for a blue agenda. As Tim Montgomerie has said in the past, we might even see the current constraints – frustrating though they are – as a sort of opportunity. Today: chrysalis. Tomorrow: butterfly.


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