David Cameron and Nick Clegg visit Pentland Brands Global Headquarters on July 25, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Behind the bluster, the Tories and the Lib Dems are preparing for another coalition

Clegg and others would rather continue to do business with the Tories than with a Labour Party regarded as irredeemably tribal.

War is in the air at Westminster. Battle plans are being finalised, generals recalled and shock troops deployed. In advance of the start of “the long campaign” in January, all parties are transitioning into election mode. Lynton Crosby, the Conservative strategist, has become the pivotal figure at the 4pm Downing Street meeting as David Cameron’s focus shifts from governing to electioneering. Ed Miliband and his office will shortly move from parliament’s Norman Shaw South building to Labour’s Brewer’s Green HQ to merge with the campaign operation. Lib Dem ministers are avoiding the Commons when possible in order to devote their energies to defending their endangered seats.

The Tories and the Lib Dems have spent the period since the Autumn Statement (which Nick Clegg snubbed to campaign in the marginal constituency of St Ives) publicly berating each other. But unlike past ructions over the Alternative Vote campaign, Cameron’s EU “veto”, the constituency boundary changes and childcare ratios, these controlled explosions are designed to benefit both sides politically.

For the Lib Dems, the aim is to demonstrate their independence to the anti-Conservative voters they need to win over to retain the majority of their seats. Of the party’s 56 constituencies, the Tories are in second place in 37. With most of those MPs in Labour-facing areas regarded as “dead men walking”, in the words of one source, it is in these seats that the party’s hopes reside. By talking up the dangers of a future Conservative government, Lib Dems aspire to persuade left-leaning voters that the safest option is to vote for them. For the Tories, the aim is to advertise the defects of another coalition in advance and to convince the electorate that only a majority Cameron administration can be trusted to maintain economic stability, cut taxes, reduce welfare spending and control immigration.

Figures on both sides express the hope that their near-daily disputes will crowd Labour out of the argument, the dynamic that led Alastair Campbell to lament in 2011 that his party was only “the third most interesting”. Although they confront each other as enemies in the marginals of southern England, the Tories acknowledge that they need the Lib Dems to recover if they are to hold off Labour in the battlegrounds of the north and the Midlands.

Some in Miliband’s party see benefits to this new phase of “aggressive differentiation”. By challenging the Tories’ refusal to impose further tax rises on the wealthy and by making the case for borrowing to invest, the Lib Dems lend credibility to policy stances shared by Labour. It is harder for the Conservatives to dismiss Miliband and Ed Balls as deranged Keynesians when their views are echoed by the people they have been in government with for the past four years. The Labour leader’s speech on 11 December, which took aim at the Tories’ own “35 per cent strategy” to shrink the state to its lowest level since the 1930s, demonstrated his confidence in attacking what he regards as a profound strategic error by Cameron and Osborne.

The Lib Dems’ assault on the Tories also exposes them to the charge of inconsistency, a concern articulated by the former minister Jeremy Browne, who urges his party to focus on claiming credit for the coalition’s achievements. When Clegg’s party complains of the “unnecessary pain” planned by the Conservatives, Labour will remind voters that the Lib Dems supported the “bedroom tax”, the tripling of tuition fees and the reorganisation of the NHS. If the Tories are so nasty, why vote for the people who have sat in cabinet with them since 2010?

The greatest irony of the coalition’s internecine warfare is that its members are quietly preparing the ground for a post-election renewal of vows. Both parties are consciously avoiding policy commitments that could prove impossible to maintain in a future negotiation. While railing against the Lib Dems’ proposed “mansion tax”, Osborne has not ruled out introducing a version in the future (having privately supported the option of higher council tax bands in opposition to Cameron). From the other side, Danny Alexander has said of a future VAT rise, “I certainly would not advocate any further increases” – a signal that he fears he may be forced to do so by the Tories. The only official red line drawn by any figure is Cameron’s vow not to lead a government that cannot deliver an in/out EU referendum. While publicly opposed to this policy, Lib Dems privately signal that they would be prepared to accept it in return for concessions such as House of Lords reform and the introduction of proportional representation for local elections.

They also acknowledge that the party’s leadership would rather continue to do business with the Tories than enter government with a Labour Party regarded as irredeemably tribal and impervious to compromise. One MP tells me that the Lib Dems would be prepared to take the path rejected by the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1974 and prop up a Conservative government with more votes than Miliband’s party but fewer seats. Cameron – who, as the incumbent, enjoys first preference on any future coalition – can give thanks for that.

No party publicly acknowledges such war-gaming. The Tories and Labour, with good reason, maintain the pretence that they can win majorities even as the polls suggest another hung parliament is likely. No one can be seen to contemplate failure in advance. This stance will be harder to maintain in the heat of a general election campaign when the media and the voters, mindful of the experience of 2010, will demand answers on prospective coalitions. For now, though, the conspiracy of silence endures.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Photo: Getty Images/Christopher Furlong
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A dozen defeated parliamentary candidates back Caroline Flint for deputy

Supporters of all the leadership candidates have rallied around Caroline Flint's bid to be deputy leader.

Twelve former parliamentary candidates have backed Caroline Flint's bid to become deputy leader in an open letter to the New Statesman. Dubbing the Don Valley MP a "fantastic campaigner", they explain that why despite backing different candidates for the leadership, they "are united in supporting Caroline Flint to be Labour's next deputy leader", who they describe as a "brilliant communicator and creative policy maker". 

Flint welcomed the endorsement, saying: "our candidates know better than most what it takes to win the sort of seats Labour must gain in order to win a general election, so I'm delighted to have their support.". She urged Labour to rebuild "not by lookin to the past, but by learning from the past", saying that "we must rediscover Labour's voice, especially in communities wher we do not have a Labour MP:".

The Flint campaign will hope that the endorsement provides a boost as the campaign enters its final days.

The full letter is below:

There is no route to Downing Street that does not run through the seats we fought for Labour at the General Election.

"We need a new leadership team that can win back Labour's lost voters.

Although we are backing different candidates to be Leader, we are united in supporting Caroline Flint to be Labour's next deputy leader.

Not only is Caroline a fantastic campaigner, who toured the country supporting Labour's candidates, she's also a brilliant communicator and creative policy maker, which is exactly what we need in our next deputy leader.

If Labour is to win the next election, it is vital that we pick a leadership team that doesn't just appeal to Labour Party members, but is capable of winning the General Election. Caroline Flint is our best hope of beating the Tories.

We urge Labour Party members and supporters to unite behind Caroline Flint and begin the process of rebuilding to win in 2020.

Jessica Asato (Norwich North), Will Straw (Rossendale and Darween), Nick Bent (Warrington South), Mike Le Surf (South Basildon and East Thurrock), Tris Osborne (Chatham and Aylesford), Victoria Groulef (Reading West), Jamie Hanley (Pudsey), Kevin McKeever (Northampton South), Joy Squires (Worcester), Paul Clark (Gillingham and Rainham), Patrick Hall (Bedford) and Mary Wimbury (Aberconwy)

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.