The Lib Dems should be wary of becoming the dull middle men of British politics

While Clegg's party looks increasingly conformist, the Tories are moving into a coherent right-wing position for 2015.

If anyone thought the best way to herd Tory backbenchers back into line was a stiff telling off from Nick Clegg, then they were always destined to be disappointed. But I don’t suppose that was ever the real intention. It was probably more about two other things – ensuring the junior member of the coalition looked more adult (and more disciplined) than the senior side – and winding Tory MPs up to such an extent they go off on one and make a bit of a show of themselves. Again.

The latter hope seemed doomed to failure – surely Nick of all people waving the red rag at those Conservative backbench bulls was just too obvious a strategy, and they wouldn’t fall for it. But no, I’m wrong. John Redwood has manfully stepped up to the plate, pawing the ground, snorting with fury – and blaming all the woes of the world on the Lib Dems  - all this time wasted on boundary revisions, House of Lords reform, the AV referendum - our fault apparently.

Seeing as the political shenanigans of the last fortnight have been Tory-inspired (Euro referendums and splits on equal marriage), this seems a bit rich. But it also points to something else. That the Conservative backbenches remain fiercely unhappy with being in coalition and resent Lib Dem-inspired policy just as much as they resent not getting their own way on what they view as core Tory themes.

Now, while at present this makes them look a tad like the swivel-eyed half of the coalition, I don’t wonder if, come a general election, it won’t begin to play well. While the Tories may be responding to the UKIP threat more than anything else, I am beginning to wonder if, entirely by accident, it’s the Tories who are moving towards a coherent position for 2015, while we in the Lib Dems look like the straight laced, steady as you go, slightly conformist middle men.

In this age of rejection of the identikit politician, could it be that, in looking like a slightly more coherent version of the fastest growing political force in the country, the Tory right are getting into a position where they can pull all sorts of rabbits from hats?

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks during a press conference at Admiralty House in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.