Conservative Diary

Liberal Democrats

5 May 2013 08:56:13

Redwood wants an EU poll bill. So does Baron. Both raise the question: how long should the Coalition last?

By Paul Goodman
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Camerons's choice copy
John Redwood writes on this site today to advocate a mandate referendum on the EU in this Parliament - a move that would require an Act to make it happen.  John Baron continues to lead the campaign for a separate Act in this Parliament, which would write the In/Out referendum to which David Cameron is committed into legislation.  I will write about the arguments for and against both ideas in due course, but will for today limit myself to the implications which they have for the maintenance of the Coalition.

It might be that the Commons would vote for one of the two measures, or even both, because enough Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs would support them: it is arguable that Ed Miliband would not oppose the Baron initiative, in particular.  But let's presume that Nick Clegg lines up against both bills (a reasonable presumption).  In such circumstances, could Cameron whip Conservative MPs to go into one lobby if Liberal Democrat MPs were going into the other?

The question of whether the Prime Minister supports Redwood's or Baron's proposal (or both) thus turns out also to be a question about the future of the Coalition.  Readers must decide for themselves whether it could work effectively were the two Parliamentary parties directed into different lobbies by their respective whips - and whether the Coalition is worth preserving.  It's worth noting that the Coalition Agreement doesn't insist that the two parties vote together in all circumstances - for example, over tax breaks for marriage - and that the Liberal Democrats helped to enshrine it when they failed to support Jeremy Hunt.

My own answer is that the Coalition is worth preserving, and that while EU referendum bills might not bring it down, they would certainly strain it severely.  This raises a further question: if the Coalition is worth preserving, how long should it last for? Again, readers must give decide for themselves, but my answer is that since it will effectively be inoperable for its final six months - or as good as - Cameron could loosen the whipping arrangements during that period.

It would probably be too late for a mandate referendum by then (mind you, I suppose one could be held on general election day itself), though there would certainly be time to enshrine the In/Out referendum in law.  I would certainly like to see a series of initiatives from the backbenches, which Tory Ministers would support from the dispatch box - and, more often than not, in the lobbies.  In that last six months, backbenchers could propose a tougher immigration cap, a tighter benefits cap, a British Bill of Rights, English votes for English laws - and so on.  The alternative for David Cameron, at that stage, will be Parliamentary paralysis.

5 Apr 2013 07:04:54

How Cameron could end the Coalition

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By Paul Goodman
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LibDem bloggers Stephen Tall and Mark Pack, and Mike Smithson of Political Betting, raised some solid objections to the Coalition breaking up some six months before the 2015 general election - which I recommended on this site earlier this week.  (Mike suggested that I should see "This House", the well-reviewed play about the Parliament of the mid-1970s - and a reminder of the terrible fate of governments without majorities.  I replied that neither of us can expected to be around for the play about the hapless last six months of this Coalition - due, on the same timescale, in roughly 2053.) Let me deal with the two main points raised, before going on to make a new one.

  • Stephen raised the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.  This is indeed a major obstacle to either of the two Coalition partner breaking up the arrangement, but I wasn't arguing for an early general election - which, as he has written, is very difficult to achieve, given the act.  Rather, I was suggesting that the two parties might want to move to Confidence and Supply.
  • Stephen than said that LibDem members don't want to do this - and cited a Liberal Democrat Voice poll which shows that 76% of them want the Coalition to go the distance. Again, this is a strong point: for obvious reasons, I'm not an expert on the LibDems, but their MPs have to date stuck to coalition with a discipline that parts of their Conservative equivalents don't always show.  However, it may be that even those who understand the LibDems far better than I don't know whether Nick Clegg will still be the party's leader come mid-2014, or whether he will have been replaced by, say, Vince Cable.  That would well and truly put the cat among the Coalition pigeons, and a move to Confidence and Supply couldn't be ruled out in such circumstances.  For what it's worth, my hunch is that Clegg will see the Parliament out as leader, but no-one can be sure.
  • Let's presume, however, that the Liberal Democrats are indeed unwilling to move to Confidence and Supply, and will stick with coalition until the 2015 election.  They will none the less continue to push their own point of view, as they did yesterday over Trident: that in itself is perfectly understandable.  More novel is their view that they should have lots of latitude to vote in a different way to their majority partner - remember what happened over the Jeremy Hunt vote.  It may of course be that the Conservatives behaved in the same way previously, though I'm not aware of this having happened.  But whether they did or not, the Hunt vote was a reminder that the two partners don't always vote in the same lobby.  All in all, David Cameron would certainly be able to break up the Coalition de facto if not de jure in September 2014. Ways can be found for the Commons could debate John Baron's referendum bill plan, Chris Grayling's proposal to curb the ECHR (which will surely be announced by then), a tighter welfare cap, and so on.  Conservative Ministers might not be able to vote for all these plans, but they would be able to voice support for them from the dispatch box, while backbenchers would show their backing for them in the lobbies (quietly encouraged by the Whips).  A recipe for paralysis, I hear you cry.  Unlike, of course, the productive, co-operative, harmonious six months of the Coalition that will otherwise be the case.

3 Apr 2013 07:45:11

Cameron should end the Coalition in September 2014

Cameron & Clegg laughing
By Paul Goodman

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David Cameron gave Conservative MPs "a very strong indication" at the recent Parliamentary Party meeting that he wants to introduce legislation before 2015 for his planned EU referendum after the next election.  Or so the Spectator's Isabel Hardman reported recently.  But the Prime Minister knows as well as anyone that Nick Clegg wouldn't support such a move: it would simply be vetoed.  So what on earth was he doing playing up to his Euro-sceptic MPs?  Was one of his weaknesses on display - namely, his tendency to duck short-term trouble, whatever the medium-term cost ?  Or were the Spectator's sources mistaken?  Did they mis-read or exaggerate?

Perhaps. That's been known to happen - and often, too.  But I believe that Isabel knows what she's about, and that there's another explanation for Cameron's nods and hints.  Both he and Nick Clegg - and most MPs in the parties they lead - want the Coalition to continue.  They recognise that if they don't hang together they will hang separately, and that a snap election, forced amidst strife and chaos, would benefit neither of their parties.  (Yes, yes: I appreciate that there's a Fixed Terms Parliament Act.  But it might not be sufficient to prolong this Parliament until 2015, were the Coalition to break down.)

Continue reading "Cameron should end the Coalition in September 2014" »

4 Mar 2013 08:36:05

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.

Continue reading "To Hell with the Lib Dems? Nope..." »

27 Feb 2013 07:02:31

After Rennard, Parliament may seek to bar sexism, with good consequences - and bad ones

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-02-26 at 23.02.03In my sole venture into school drama, I played Arthur, "a very junior Home Official official", in Tom Stoppard's New Found Land.  I might otherwise have been cast as an Parliamentarian in the two-part play between which it is sandwiched, his Dirty Linen: indeed, the play boasts no fewer than seven male MPs.  I was perhaps ineligible to play the part of the eighth, Mrs Ebury - and also to star as the central figure in the play, Maddie, the Secretary to a Select Committee, who first appears on stage wearing "a low cut, sleeveless blouse, buttoned insecurely down the front; a wrap-around skirt, quite short; underneath, suspenders, not tights, and a waist-slip which is also pretty, silk and lace, with a slit...the knickers ought to be remembered for their colour - perhaps white silk with red lace trimmings."

The plot turns around the dalliance of Miss GoToBed - to use Maddie's surname - with all eight MPs (yes, including Mrs Ebury).  So what would happen in a Dirty Linen for our times?  Maddie would surely refuse to yield to the MPs' advances, find her way to Kathy Newman of Channel 4 News, and tell her tale as part of an investigative special.  My point is not that the 1970s were better or worse than today (Dirty Linen was first performed in 1976) than that attitudes towards Parliament and sex have changed almost out of recognition - the second, arguably, even more than the first. And the places in which changes to those attitudes are most pervasive are institutions or businesses which have at least one thing in common with Parliament: size.

Continue reading "After Rennard, Parliament may seek to bar sexism, with good consequences - and bad ones" »

24 Feb 2013 08:34:48

Party leaders fail to follow the equality rules they impose on others

By Harry Phibbs
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SuntelcleggThis morning there is still an official Lib Dem denial that Nick Clegg was aware of the allegations concering Lord Rennard's sexual harassment of female party activists. However, reading the abundance of revelations in this morning's papers about the scandal the denial stretches credibility to breaking point.

There is a long saga of hypocrisy on the Left when it comes to women's rights. There was Jean-Paul Sartre's treatment of Simone de Beauvoir. There was the way American feminists on the Left excused Bill Clinton's behaviour. The scandals involving fringe left-wing parties in our country such as the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Revolutionary Party are well documented.

However, there is a broader hypocrisy which all politicians need to address.

In The Spectator (£) this week Ross Clark reflects on how politicians fail to follow the rules they impose on business. David Cameron "lectured a business audience in India" on the need to have 50% of company directors as women while "just four of Cameron’s 22-strong Cabinet are women" while "as for the educational background of Cabinet ministers, God help any university which showed such a bias towards public school types."

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7 Feb 2013 07:41:06

Why Cameron must win Eastleigh

By Paul Goodman
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As soon as Nick Clegg announced last summer, in the wake of the collapse of Lords reform, that the Liberal Democrats would about-turn on the boundary review, I wrote that his prospects of winning a majority in 2015 were vanishing, that he would now hope to re-form the Coalition after the next election, and that his leadership was now at risk.  Nothing since has happened to make me change my mind - if anything, events have made a challenge more likely.  Risk is not certainty, and my best guess is that there is only a 25% per cent chance of a leadership ballot after the local elections, but is is impossible to make an accurate assessment.

The Adam Afriyie story identified only one of a number of plots that are swirling round Westminster.  It is a mistake to believe that what is needed to trigger a ballot is the click of computer mouse in some Portcullis House office, ordering 46 MP suicide bombers to go over the top, and send in letters demanding a ballot to Graham Brady.  If events take on a momentum of their own, and enough of the Judean People's Fronts and People's Fronts of Judea on the Tory backbenches are galvanised into life, Brady will suddenly emerge to declare a contest.  It is worth considering the news this morning in the light of that possibility.

Continue reading "Why Cameron must win Eastleigh" »

4 Feb 2013 10:36:02

Huhne pleads guilty. If a few votes had gone the other way, he might have been Deputy Prime Minister...

By Paul Goodman
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Chris Huhne has just pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice.  No doubt we will find out in due course why he has done so now, having originally pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Three brief points:

  • There will be a by-election in Eastleigh.
  • Cabinet resignations are not uncommon: think Laws and Fox from this Government; think Mandelson and Blunkett - and others - from Labour's 13 years.  But this is unusual in being a good (or bad) old-fashioned "smash".  The only comparable case I can think of is Jonathan Aitken, in terms of the politician in question being exposed in court.
  • If a few hundred votes had gone the other way - to him, not "Calamity Clegg" - Huhne would have led his party.  And although he has been an effective anti-Tory attack dog, neither the numbers nor his own inclinations (he is a deficit hawk) would have pushed him in Labour's direction in 2010.  So he could well have become Deputy Prime Minister in this Government...

More later.

21 Jan 2013 12:02:04

Lib Dems have no credibility in opposing an in/out EU referendum

By Harry Phibbs
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   With the exception of Andrew Neil and also Justin Webb the Lib Dems have been given an easy ride in their opposition to an in/out referendum on the European Union.  They have escaped awkward questioning on this incredible shift in their policy.

At the last General Election the Lib Dem candidates stood on a manifesto with the following commitment:

The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU. 

We believe that it is in Britain’s long-term interest to be part of the euro. But Britain should only join when the economic conditions are right, and in the present economic situation, they are not. Britain should join the euro only if that decision were supported by the people of Britain in a referendum.

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10 Jan 2013 11:41:52

David Cameron should learn from Nick Clegg — and speak more directly to the public

By Peter Hoskin
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If they tuned in, what might the Tory leadership have learnt from the first of Nick Clegg’s weekly appearances on LBC radio? Not much that they wouldn’t have known already. Some of the stand-out points included:

  • Voter anger… Almost all of the questions put to Mr Clegg by callers were, if not explicitly hostile, at least sceptical — and many of them focussed on cuts to benefits or to public services. In contrast to some of the rhetoric we’ve heard from Tory HQ, the Deputy Prime Minister’s responses were sensibly regretful. I lost count of how many times he said “difficult decisions.” At one point he said that he “took no relish” in agreeing to the 1 per cent cap on benefit increases.
  • …and apathy. One of the callers said that he had torn up his Lib Dem membership card. When asked who he’d vote for now, he replied that he “can’t support any party”. His will not be an isolated case at the next election.
  • The continuing emphasis on the income tax threshold and the pupil premium. In almost every response, Mr Clegg mentioned both the Coalition’s plan to increase the income tax threshold to £10,000 and the pupil premium, as well as policies such as those around apprenticeships. You can understand why: these are policies that the Lib Dems have fought for in Government. But some Tories will baulk at the thought of their Coalition partners seizing all the credit. As the next election approaches, there are likely to be plenty of skirmishes over authorship.
  • The solidification of the pro-EU case. Yesterday’s ConHome newslinks mentioned the “stealthy pro-EU fightback” that’s currently under way. Some of its main arguments were also put forward by Mr Clegg today. He agreed that the EU needs reforming, but added that “it’s about not whether you believe in reform or not, it’s whether you believe in jobs, jobs, jobs and, of course, safety.”
  • And, yes… Nick Clegg owns a onesie. Apparently, the Deputy Prime Minister was given a green onesie in Sheffield, but it has remained in its wrapping, unworn. Expect photographic mock-ups of him onesied-up in tomorrow’s papers.

Continue reading "David Cameron should learn from Nick Clegg — and speak more directly to the public" »