Nick Boles calls for new National Liberal-Conservative alliance

The Tory moderniser proposes reviving the National Liberal Party and standing joint candidates with the Conservatives.

Back in the halcyon days of the coalition in 2010, Nick Boles was one of a handful of Tory MPs to call for an electoral pact between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. At the time this was seen as an ingenious means of detoxifying the Tories' brand and of permanently realigning British politics in the centre-right's favour.

But as Boles explained in a speech to the liberal conservative group Bright Blue this lunchtime, he no longer supports the idea. The Tory moderniser cited two reasons for this. First, that he had "misjudged" the Lib Dems, whose instincts remain left-wing and "statist". In reference to Nick Clegg's recent attack on Michael Gove's "ideological" free school reforms, he accused Clegg of "a desperate attempt to position himself for coalition with a deeply illiberal Labour Party after the next election – and render himself a principle-free zone in the process. " Second, that he had "miscalculated" how the Tories would respond to coalition. Rather than moderating their ideological fixations, too many in the party had played up to the Lib Dem and media caricature of the party as "heartless extremists". 

The conclusion the planning minister drew was that "we [the Tories] must be our own liberals; we cannot rely on anyone else to do it for us. Trying to outsource liberalism from another party not only does not work; it risks reversing the fragile gains of modernisation." Now, rather than calling for the creation of a new pact, Boles is calling for the revival of an old one. In 1947, the National Liberal Party (formerly the Liberal National faction of the Liberal Party) merged with the Conservative Party at constituency level and maintained a separate national identity until it was fully incorporated in 1968.

Boles suggested that the Tories should now consider reviving the National Liberal Party, "or something like it", as an affiliate of the Conservatives, and standing joint candidates. He compared the proposed relationship to that between Labour and the Co-Operative Party, which does not run candidates separately from Labour and to which which 32 MPs belong. He added: "Existing MPs, councillors, candidates and party members of liberal views would be encouraged to join. And we could use it to recruit new supporters who might initially balk at the idea of calling themselves Conservative.In three-way marginals and the key target seats that we have to take off the Liberal Democrats, an explicit National Liberal pitch might make the difference between victory and defeat."

To me, this seems at best a distraction from the primary task of detoxifying the Tory brand. But unlike so many in his party, Boles is at least asking the right questions about how to widen the party's appeal.

Conservative MP and Planning Minister Nick Boles.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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