Nick Clegg and Jeremy Browne speak with a police officer at the Stockwell Park Estate on April 25, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
The Home Office is not a place to be squeamish about state power. As the department responsible for preventing crime and disorder, its stock-in-trade is monitoring, control and coercion. Under the coalition government, it seems perpetually to be “cracking down” on something.
It was the Home Office that came up with the idea of driving mobile billboards inviting illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest” around multiracial boroughs of London. It was a mistake, says Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat minister of state at the department responsible. “I was not consulted beforehand, neither was Nick Clegg, and that is a serious oversight.” Browne defends the voluntary repatriation policy but is scathing about the way the signal was sent out: “The debate about immigration should be conducted in a tone that is civilised and humane, rather than pandering to the least attractive elements in the human spirit.”
We meet in Browne’s sparse room at the Home Office, where he has been for just a year. He was previously Clegg’s man at the Foreign Office. The move was seen in Westminster as an attempt to get more leverage in a department that often aggravates liberal scruples. But if Browne’s unofficial job title is thwarter-in-chief of authoritarian Tory tendencies, he isn’t letting on. The Conservatives, he says, are the second most liberal party when it comes to home affairs, while Labour attacks the coalition from populist, right-wing positions.
“The Conservatives may be a magnetic force pulling the Lib Dems away from a purer form of liberalism but it’s not true that if we were in coalition with Labour, it would represent some easy, liberal utopia. There would be a much bigger gap to bridge to try to accommodate the authoritarian instincts of the Labour Party.”
Browne is a classical liberal from the Orange Book wing of his party – the side that was suspicious of socialism and state intervention even before the opportunity arose to make common cause with the Conservatives. While some left-leaning Lib Dems are wary of their party’s proximity to David Cameron, Browne is certain that the Tory leader has a firmer grasp of the challenges facing the country than Ed Miliband does. He declares “the global race” – Cameron’s pet theme – to be “the big issue of our time”. By contrast, he describes Labour as “intellectually lazy, running on empty” and suffering from “a leadership void”. “I just don’t think of them as equipped to run the country,” he says.
It sounds as if Browne is preparing for a renewal of coalition vows after the next election. There are, he claims, Tories who would rather keep the current arrangement than go it alone and be held to ransom by maverick backbenchers. For these “moderate Conservatives”, the worst-case scenario at the next election is a small majority. “They would be beholden to the people on the right of the party, who have a lot more in common with Ukip than they do with David Cameron.”
In Browne’s view, there are between 25 and 30 Tory MPs who reject the Prime Minister’s authority. (“They actually like the idea of wielding their collective muscle to push him around.”) He says that, as a result, “The Conservatives would have difficulty governing in as stable a fashion as this coalition government has done with a majority of much less than 40 or 50.”
This is a rehearsal of the Lib Dems’ pitch at the next election. Neither of the two main parties, they will say, can be trusted to govern alone; both need leavening with a dose of Cleggism. It is an optimistic line from a party whose poll ratings languish in single figures. Ukip, I suggest, is now performing the function that the Lib Dems once had as the place voters go to express a rejection of the big Westminster parties.
Browne does not recoil from the comparison. Nigel Farage’s party, he says, is mimicking the strategy that the Lib Dems used to graduate from protest vehicle to potential party of government. Ukip is here to stay. “We are moving away from bipolar politics, where every opinion is corralled into two main parties, to a situation where more and more things are being unpackaged.”
Browne even argues that the Lib Dems and Ukip, despite competing for third place in opinion polls, represent a more precise account of the rival visions that politics offers Britain. “Essentially, the big choice the country faces is not really embodied that well by the two biggest parties: it is represented by the Lib Dems and Ukip. That’s where it’s thrown into stark relief.” He defines the contest as between “pulling the drawbridge up, erecting barriers to the outside”, and “being a welcoming, liberal, outward-looking, internationalist country that embraces the opportunities of globalisation”.
That means being more relaxed about immigration than British politics seems to allow. Browne describes himself as part of the “unfashionable minority” that celebrates the opening of British borders to EU workers from eastern Europe. “I don’t think there was a mistake. It was transformational in terms of Britain’s relationship with countries like Poland . . . It was in our foreign policy interest but, at a much more direct, micro level, there are lots of employers in my constituency and around the country who are full of praise for the contribution that Poles have made to their businesses and the economy more generally.”
Will the Lib Dems be so enthusiastic about the Romanian and Bulgarian migrants who will enjoy new freedoms to work in Britain from next January? “They’re only complying with the same rules as British people who live in Spain or have holiday houses in France, or who work in Germany.” Browne is quick to add the caveat that the influx has put pressure on public services, which accounts for much of the political backlash. “But I think if you look at the overall ledger . . . the positives outweigh the negatives.”