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In the aftermath of this week’s by-election, is Cameron’s modernising left also a problem for him?

Last Updated: Friday, January 14th, 2011

Nick Clegg seems to have grasped that the speculation about an electoral pact – and possible merger – of the two Coalition parties has done the Liberal Democrats no good.  During the Christmas recess, Adrian Sanders, one of his backbench MPs, urged the Deputy Prime Minister to be combative, and trumpet negotiation victories over the Conservatives in Government.  It was briefed by way of response that Clegg’s own instinct is to be emollient, because the lesson from abroad, he believes, is that voters dislike the spectacle of squabbling politicians trying to score off each other.

By the middle of this week, however, he was taking a leaf out of Sanders’s book, listing a series of Liberal Democrat achievements in government on the Today programme.  On bank bonuses, control orders and Lords reform (on which subject he had an acrimonious session with peers yesterday), he’s been anxious to emphasise that his party hasn’t been swallowed up by the Conservatives, and that he isn’t, as some cartoonists like to portray him, David Cameron’s school “fag”.  Will David Cameron come to take a similar view, and treat the Coalition less like a marriage and more like a cohabitation?

It’s true that the impression of closeness to the Liberal Democrats doesn’t seem to have harmed the Prime Minister with voters in the same way that approximation to the Conservatives has damaged his Deputy.  But he faces other problems.  The conventional view is that these come from his Party’s right: that backbench Conservative MPs are unhappy about Government policy on the EU, crime, human rights, and tax – and that their discontent mingles in a toxic way with backbench unease over CCHQ’s somnolent campaign in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election and (even more dangerously) mutinous resentment over their pay and expenses.

However, there’s a case for arguing that David Cameron’s biggest difficulty comes from his modernising left.  One Cabinet Minister recently briefed the Sunday Telegraph that the Coalition should continue indefinitely.  Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, has said so in remarks which were reported in the Daily Mail.  John Major, who had problem with the Tory right of his own when Prime Minister, has made the same case.  So has Nick Boles, a bright young MP who is close to Maude and the party leadership.  All probably acted without being prompted.  But not all Conservative MPs believe it.

The Oldham result is likely to give this story new legs at a time when it’s in Number Ten’s interest to stop it in its tracks.  Labour won 14,718 votes; the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat between them 15,641.  Look out for senior Tories suggesting quietly over the weekend – off the record, of course – that a single Coalition candidate would, therefore, have beaten Labour – and that an election pact, leading to an eventual merger, is the best way forward for the Party.  Others may claim that if the poll had taken place under the alternative vote system, Tory voters would have transferred to the Liberal Democrats (with, perhaps, some UKIP voters too).

Obviously, right-wing grumbling will also find its way into the papers and on to the blogs, exacerbated by the weird remarks of Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative Party’s co-Chairman, who appeared earlier this morning to blame the Party’s right for its troubles.  But the problems posed to Cameron from his modernising left are more subtle and arguably more serious.  In short, some of his supporters simply won’t shut up about political re-alignment, and the by-election is likely once again to put wind in their sails.  For tactical reasons, the Prime Minister wished his Coalition partners well in Oldham.  For strategic ones, he’d be well advised to ask some of his friends to pipe down.


Paul Goodman




Reflections on the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election: CCHQ should have acted quickly to make the running as soon as it was clear a by-election was on the cards… Once the general election result was declared void (November 5th), the by-election machine which ensured victory in Crewe & Nantwich and Norwich North should have been cranked into action. Instead, as the Lib Dems made hay, the party did not formally re-select Kashif as candidate until mid-December – the last of the three main parties formally to pick their candidate. As Tim blogged before Christmas, it is the first fortnight that defines a by-election campaign and determines who wins and loses. During the first fortnight Labour and the Lib Dems were making the running and we were barely out of the blocks. More via

Cameron gives strongest assertion yet that there’ll be no alliance with the Lib Dems at the next general election: Asked, on Andrew Marr’s programme, about a continuing alliance between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems Mr Cameron said the Conservative Party was fighting Oldham East and Saddleworth as an independent party and would fight the next election as an independent party. This is Mr Cameron’s strongest assertion yet that there would be no formal alliance with the Liberal Democrats. Up until now he has used the formulation that he “expects” Tories to fight as an independent party (a formulation also employed by George Osborne). More via

Time to end to Rose Garden politics? The Prime Minister should now distance his Party from the Liberal Democrats.  Conservative backbenchers and party members alike want to see it retain its own distinct identity, and a sense that Liberal Democrat concerns are more important to Downing Street than their own helps to explain, at least in part, recent rebellions and discontent, and hence the Government working less effectively than it might. More via

Andrew Lansley, secret radical – and the risks and opportunities of his healthcare revolution:  A prominent feature of Tory NHS policy has been the suggestion of no major change, formed by Cameron’s political instincts, furthered by his family circumstances, supported by his constituency experience, and expressed in the ring-fencing of the NHS budget.  Cameron’s instinct is to keep the NHS going much as now as a healthcare service, while closing it down as a political issue… However, there are tensions between this impulse and a very different one – the urge to reform our healthcare system, and help prove the Government’s radical credentials by doing so… It’s become apparent that beneath the Health Secretary’s undemonstrative grasp of healthcare arcana lies an insistent commitment to NHS reform. More via and

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles wants a stop to councils employing lobbyists: Councils should not be spending taxpayers cash on bankrolling elaborate lobbying campaigns. Government paying to lobby government is indefensible. It undermines democracy to the level of decisions being made behind closed doors in smoke filled rooms – exactly the sort of corrosive practices which have undermined faith in the political process.  And more immediately, when councils face some difficult decisions about how to spend their money, it is impossible to see how they can justify that kind of spending to the public. More via

Business Minister Mark Prisk explains how the Government will help small businesses to thrive and grow: The principles of this reform are to modernise the provision of information by creating an interactive online facility, tailored to each business’s needs; to simplify and speed up the process of starting a business; to focus government resources on fast growing businesses, rather than providing generalised support for all; and to recognise that the advice businesses most value comes from those with real business experience. More via

In brief:

Oliver Letwin unveils plans for Conservative policy formation – Details at

Tory MPs call for Cameron to show “backbone” and resist voting rights for prisoners – Details at

27 Conservative backbenchers back rebel Europe amendment – Details at

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