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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser