“What happened to David Cameron’s ‘liberal conservatism’? I suppose it was just a marketing gimmick. Like ‘vote blue, go green’. Inauthentic.”
Jeremy Browne is a Liberal Democrat MP, so on one level his attack on the PM’s reshuffle shouldn’t come as any surprise: just a spot of pre-election differentiation.
But Browne is not any old Lib Dem MP. He is regarded as one of the most rightwing Lib Dems – a Thatcherite with a europhile face – and his sacking in the last cabinet reshuffle was lamented just as much by the Conservatives than the Lib Dems. He had been the Conservatives’ main target as a potential Lib Dem defector. That is clearly not now going to happen.
And there is a wider point: what is Cameron now doing to woo 2010 Lib Dem voters? Because the Lib Dems’ 23 per cent vote share could easily be halved, these voters will be critical next May. The Conservatives are second in 38 of the Lib Dems’ 57 seats. There are also 37 Conservative-Labour marginals in which the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the incumbent’s majority. Alienating Lib Dems risks these seats turning red even if the Conservatives maintain their share of the vote.
This reshuffle has been designed for many groups. Women. Ethnic minority. Northern people. The working-class. Eurosceptics. And the Tory right, Owen Paterson’s fate notwithstanding. But not, apparently, disillusioned Lib Dems.
It could be a serious mistake. With there being almost no actual governing for the new cabinet members to do, the last year of the coalition risks descending into rows over semantic differences. The Conservative temptation will be to show what they would have done if only those pesky Lib Dems hadn’t got in the way.
The danger is the political terrain this leaves clear for the Lib Dems: the more the Conservatives trumpet areas they would like to go further, the more the Lib Dems can say they have dragged the coalition towards the centre ground. One MP in an arch-marginal Lib-Con seat told me that his aim was to position himself as the coalition candidate and push the Tory challenger out to the Tea Party right. For those voters who actually thought the coalition had worked well – you could call them liberal conservatives – sticking with the incumbent Lib Dem would be the logical, steady option. With this reshuffle, David Cameron has only strengthened that argument.