In Europe, liberals always dine with conservatives

The Lib Dems' sister parties have long-standing alliances with the right.

As the Liberal Democrats debate the political position of their party and the future of the coalition, a look at other EU nations shows a notable tendency for liberal parties to ally with conservatives.

In France, the Radical Party has a long-standing electoral alliance with the centre-right and even sits within the European People’s Party in the EU Parliament. In addition, many of the Lib Dems' colleagues in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group are distinctly pro-conservative.

Most outspoken is German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who resigned as leader of the liberal Free Democrats in 2011. Ahead of the 2009 German federal election, he told Der Spiegel that a coalition with the SPD or the Greens was "out of the question". He went on to argue that the left-wing parties promoted "ever greater burdens on citizens".

In Sweden, the Social Democrats are kept out of power by a right-wing electoral pact, The Alliance, which includes two ALDE affiliates, the Liberal People's Party and the Moderates.

In the Netherlands, the position of the liberals is even more outlandish. The main liberal party and, since 2010, the biggest party in the Dutch parliament, the VVD, lurched to the right in the 1970s under the leadership of Hans Wiegel. Perhaps more properly described today as conservative-liberal, it nevertheless remains allied with the Lib Dems within the ALDE group. The Netherland’s other liberal party, Democracy 66, the progressive remnant of Dutch liberalism, has itself propped up conservative governments, most recently from 2003-06.

The Lib Dems are correct in identifying liberalism as a distinctive political strand between conservatism and social democracy. However, across the EU as in Britain, this political strand sits more happily on the right. As Lady Bracknell said of the Liberal Unionists in The Importance of Being Earnest,  "Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate."

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, a former leader of the Free Democrats, with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.