Lib Dem grandee Vince Cable has been caught on tape sharing such scandalous information that the Conservatives have felt honour-bound to release it to the general public.
In the “secret tapes”, Cable refers to Labour’s Rupa Huq, who is defending her marginal seat of Ealing Central and Acton (for those millennials out there, she is also known as Konnie Huq’s big sister).
Cable, who is fighting to regain his former seat in Twickenham, lets slip that he gave Huq a lift home after a TV appearance and they “talked for a couple of hours”. The former Coalition Business secretary then drops the bombshell: “It was very clear that on almost every issue our views were almost identical.” He urges “our people around the country” to “think and act in a constructive way”.
Yes! Cable appears to be instructing voters to consider choosing someone who shares similar views to him, but has – for some reason or other – not ended up in the same political party. The European voter, used to proportional representation, may consider this a reasonable proposition, but they are wrong. Never mind that the Conservatives received 42.7 per cent of the Ealing Central and Acton vote in 2015, and the Lib Dems received a miserably 6.1 per cent. Never mind that neither Labour or the Lib Dems look likely to come close to winning “the Brexit election”. Never mind that Theresa May’s mandate so far seems to be “crush the saboteurs” aka the already disorganised and hapless opposition. Cable seems to be suggesting that the Lib Dems will not become the largest party in June, and that is a scandal.
In fact, what I’ll call “likeminded alliances” are already happening on the ground. The Lib Dems are standing down in Brighton Pavilion in return for the Greens standing down in Kemptown. The Greens are standing down for Huq. Open Britain, a campaign against hard Brexit, has offered Remain voters advice on tactical voting. An anti-progressive alliance is also taking shape – Ukip is considering not standing in seats occupied by pro-Brexit Tories.
The problem for progressives is that what might seem perfectly agreeable on a long drive home from a TV studio cannot be rolled out in the country as a whole. London’s Labour clan may consider an alliance with the Scottish National Party handy, but Scottish Labour bokes at the thought. And this isn’t some kind of ideological puzzle that can be brushed aside – it’s because the independence question has divided families and communities in a way it doesn’t 400 miles south. Lib Dem and Labour voters may gather round the South West London dinner tables and bemoan Brexit together, but many Labour incumbents have to appeal to constituents who voted Leave.
You can argue, as Neal Lawson does, that Labour progressives should stop indulging the party’s awkward squad and team up. But thanks to the fractures of two referendums, such an alliance will struggle to be intellectually coherent, at least if its supporters want to see the continuation of the UK. And, if the 2015 general election taught us anything, it’s that voters are very quick to judge the compromises of coalition. The Tories are already talking up “a coalition of chaos”.
So this is the real truth revealed by the Cable tapes. Progressive alliances may be local, opportunistic deals that can expire as soon as the political winds change. They may be MPs working across party lines on issues they can all agree on, like Brexit or welfare cuts. But invest too much ideological significance in these truces, or suggest that there is a lesson for the future, and you destroy the whole project. So keep it hush hush.