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.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”