Minority retort: the Tories are looking to a future without the Lib Dems

Some Conservatives are nervous about what their party will look like beyond coalition with the Lib Dems. Both their and voters' views jar with the PM's insistence that he doesn't want another coalition.

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It is an inevitability that the main parties ahead of the election outright refuse to contemplate a scenario in which they do not win a majority in 2015. In spite of preparations behind the scenes on the Labour side, its frontbenchers must stick to the line that they are working towards a Labour majority. And in spite of the odds of a win being stacked against the Tories, it’s the same with them too.

Heralding the beginning of Conservative party conference on Sunday, the Sunday Times ran an interview with David Cameron. It was somewhat lost beneath the double blow to the Tories being reported that day in Mark Reckless’ defection and Brooks Newmark’s resignation. As the paper’s political editor, Tim Shipman, who interviewed the PM, said of the piece the day before: “It is now the third most interesting story we have.”

But there was an interesting line in there, where Cameron appeared to give a verbal shudder at the idea of working with the Liberal Democrats in government ever again. Here’s the key passage:

The prime minister used to boast about the successes of the coalition. Now there is no room for Nick Clegg, either in his thoughts or, apparently, in his next government. “I’m more keen than ever to lead a government that can really deliver, unencumbered by the Liberal Democrats. We can take it from here now.”

Would he swallow another coalition? “There is not one ounce of my being that wants to see that outcome.”

It is indeed striking how this conference season, and indeed British politics for the last few months, has seen a near-disappearance of Tory ministers vocalising the importance and benefit of unity with their junior coalition partners. Cases of disagreement between the Lib Dems and Conservatives in government are no longer reported excitably as “coalition splits”. It’s the parties’ “differentiation” strategy in action.

This is all very well for the short-term politics preceding a general election, but a nervous conversation some Tories are having at their annual conference this year is what their party would look like in a future government without the Lib Dems.

With YouGov’s director Peter Kellner’s article yesterday predicting a situation where “There is now a chance that neither will have a secure majority, even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats", it’s high time the Tories – whose identity has been yanked in all directions since day one of the coalition – decided on their future beyond clinging on until 2015.

Former Chancellor and veteran Tory frontbencher Ken Clarke spoke at an event at the conference last night and gave a dim view of his party’s chances of landing a majority next May. Although he said the prospect of the Conservatives gaining more seats than Labour in a hung parliament was possible, he remarked: “I think getting an overall majority is a mountain to climb”, adding that the Tories need more women, ethnic minorities and young people “to vote for us”.

This attitude was echoed at a fringe event during conference today held by the progressive Conservative think tank, Bright Blue, with the IPPR. The panel – a handful of non-partisan journalists, the Times columnist and moderate Tory voice Matthew Parris and former shadow home secretary David Davis MP – agreed that a situation where the Tories are alone in government requires the party going hard on their lost modernisation agenda.

Davis lamented the fact that the presence of the Lib Dems in government did not hold Cameron to the detoxification of the Tory brand, a strategy that defined his rise to the Tory leadership.

Davis said: “I don’t think the Liberal Democrat party has really fettered the Conservative party at all… They haven’t done what I hoped they’d do. As a government, we’re pretty anti-meritocratic… Economic policy should be designed in much more of a meritocratic way… I think they’ve [the Lib Dems] been hopeless, frankly, in government. Completely unprincipled and spineless.”

Davis, known for championing protection of civil liberties, feels the Lib Dems have not done enough to achieve a truly liberal government alongside the Conservatives.

Parris, in contrast, voiced his enthusiasm for the Con-Lib coalition, saying he believed it has worked well. When asked the question “What will the Tories do alone in government?” he replied: “Almost nothing.”

However, what unites the differing views on the coalition of these two progressive Conservatives is the fact that working with a liberal party should be a good thing for the direction of their party.

It’s surprising how many voters seem to feel this too. In spite of Nick Clegg’s dreadful poll ratings, there seems to be a certain unexpected enthusiasm about the Con-Lib alliance among Conservative party supporters. The chair of the Bright Blue event asked the audience of party members who thought that the coalition has been good for the Tories. The majority of attendees raised their hands.

The Huffington Post released some polling this morning showing Conservative voters would rather a repeat of the current coalition configuration after 2015 than to see their party try going it alone as a minority government. Tory voters preferred a second Con-Lib pact to a minority government by 53 per cent to 37 per cent.

This suggests that voters and party members are cautious about the weakness of a minority government, preferring comfort of compromise to volatile vulnerability. Yet this is at odds with Cameron’s recent comments regarding future political alliances.

There is a belief among Tory modernisers that the Conservatives should be doing more for social mobility – both as an obligation of government to British society and as a way to dilute the “Tory toffs” image. The latter is a perception that Cameron and his Eton “chumocracy” haven’t exactly been successful in dispelling.

Davis lamented that Cameron hadn’t spoken enough about social mobility. Parris’ opinion on the reason for this was, “I don’t think he’s very interested”, to which Davis dryly replied: “None of them are.”

Davis warned the Conservatives that, “it could spell doom for our party in this century that we are horribly associated in the public mind with class, wealth and privilege… However it’s done, we have got to give kids from council estates the chance to make something of their lives, and if we can’t do that, we can no longer call ourselves Conservatives.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.