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10 May 2011

Be liberal, Clegg

The Liberal Democrats cannot belong to a centre-right government and yet insist to supporters that t

By Graeme Archer

I’m sure Nick Clegg’s inbox bulges sufficiently with advice without his reading list of suggestions being added to by a Tory activist (that is, a deliverer of leaflets) from Hackney (that is, a deliverer of unread leaflets), but, you know, I’m coming at this from a different angle than most. I’d quite like Nick Clegg to succeed, for one thing, which perhaps gives my advice a different flavour from that of Simon “And We’ve Just Lost Sheffield, Nick Clegg’s Backyard!” Hughes.

I’ll get to the advice in a minute. But first: do you know the best thing about Twitter? No, not the superinjunction feeds. Twitter’s greatest advantage is that you no longer have to sit through dull-as-ditchwater documentaries, or endure Question Time, to know what the political class are saying to one another; you just scan through the timeline of people who are paid to watch these programmes.

Which is why I know, without having seen it, that the best line in last night’s Andrew Rawnsley Channel 4 programme on the coalition came from David Davis, who said: “The Liberal Democrats have got the best seats in the plane, but no parachutes.”

I don’t quite agree with the imagery. The Liberals do have good seats in the plane, no doubt. But it’s not so much that they’re not wearing parachutes – or, at least, not just that. It’s more that the behaviour of some senior Liberals is akin to the co-pilot coming back into the cabin, mid-flight, opening the aircraft’s doors and yelling impotently at the ground 37,000 feet below: “Just cos we’re flying this plane doesn’t mean we want to go to its destination. We’d really rather it went somewhere much, much further to the left. Look, I’ve got a flight-plan agreement written last May and everything! D’you hear me?”

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The resulting rapid diminution of the distance between ground and aircraft renders the lack of parachutes (not to mention the yelling about preferred destination) a moot point.

I’m not actually a huge fan of coherence in politics: prioritise the human, not the (ideology) machine. But on the axis of coherence, the Liberal Democrats are suffering because they’re too close to the 100 per cent incoherent end of the scale. My point is this: you cannot belong to a government of the centre right, but continue to insist to (erstwhile) supporters that you are secretly still on the left, and expect to gain the respect of anyone.

Now, I know what Liberal Democrats will say to this: first, they somehow defy convention and don’t belong on that old-fashioned left-right axis (“It’s so 20th century, my dear!” Blah, blah). Sorry, but policies do, insofar as any particular policy maps on to a particular point on that axis. (Or its near analogue, the freedom/equality scale. Do you want to build a policy machine that will make every school the same? Or do you want to let thousands of different people open schools and let parents choose for themselves?).

Second, if they admit to belonging on any political axis at all, they’ll say that it’s a special place with its own values, quite distinct from those found in the Labour or Tory tribes. But nearly every policy debate within both the “old” parties can be seen as a discussion between a liberal and a conservative point of view. There’s nothing special about the adjective “liberal” when it’s used by someone wearing a bright yellow rosette.

So this is my advice to Mr Clegg. If you continue to invent dividing lines between your party and ours, and shout loudly about those differences, you’ll continue to fail. All dividing lines are fiction. (Remember Gordon Brown? Dividing lines were his sole political tool, his entire tactic to insist that all truth, and goodness, and reason, were synonymous with his name.) And what’s more, with a coalition government, voters are more aware of this than ever.

If you want to succeed, however, then turn your back on the social-democratic wing of your party and emphasise your inner liberal. It is that instinct which most aligns you with a large number of Tories – and it’s not a different liberal instinct from ours because you wear a Lib Dem badge and we wear a Tory one (which is why, for example, if you decide to prevent the election of police commissioners you won’t be scoring a point over the Tories which will be congratulated by a grateful electorate; you will only be underlining your current incoherence).

You are more likely to be successful the more you work with, and not against, Conservatives. This isn’t a message that either Mr Huhne or Dr Cable will want to hear. But that brings me to my last bit of advice, to underline your commitment to the coalition: get a proper cabinet job. Remove Mr Huhne and Dr Cable from the government, and replace them with yourself and David Laws. Show Dr Cable that it is not only Tories who are capable of being ruthless in pursuit of success.

Graeme Archer is a regular contributor to ConservativeHome hoping to remain on the Tory party official candidates’ list. In real life he is a statistician. On Twitter he’s @graemearcher.

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