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The anatomy of the British election.


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John O’Sullivan

Such calculations are utterly bogus. They rest upon a false assumption that voters are self-conscious ideologues ranged along a left-right spectrum so that if a Labour voter moves rightwards, he will inevitably move into the Lib-Dem column, a disillusioned Tory towards the Lib-Dems, etc., etc. In fact, voters move in all directions and between all parties. For most of the last 50 years, however, the most common cross-over has been between the two main parties. And the most common motive for crossing over has been in reaction to the government of the day. Given the unpopularity of the Brown government, Tories reasonably expected that they would be the overwhelming beneficiaries of cross-over voting. They underperformed massively — and the reason was not any supposed “progressive majority” in the electorate but the failure of the Cameron strategy.

And on the day afterwards, everyone knew it. That was why Cameron had to get into government at any cost. As NR’s editorial points out, if he had not done so, he would have faced a major rebellion of resentful and unrestrained Tories and almost certainly lost office. Or if he had been able to form a minority single-party Tory government — which was a second-order possibility — he would have rested uneasily on the daily chance of defeat (and on support from no less resentful backbenchers). He therefore sought the one coalition that would give him a strong majority in Parliament, the possibility of an administration that could last five years, the ability to survive the travails of economic retrenchment, and not least some protection from his own party.

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Cameronism is a foolish political strategy that was always likely to fail. But Cameron is a bold, daring, and imaginative politician — an opportunist in the good sense as well as the bad — and he stitched up the coalition and his internal enemies simultaneously by offering the Lib-Dem leader anything it took. It took quite a lot. The Tories are now committed to constitutional reforms that, in addition to offending their sense of constitutional continuity, also threaten to prevent their forming a single-party majority government ever again. They have agreed with their Lib-Dem partners to raise capital-gains tax substantially — possibly doubling it — on the savings of their natural supporters. And they have shed many of the policies — cutting the inheritance tax, for instance — that persuaded those supporters to tolerate the Cameron project throughout the opposition years. Most Tories don’t like these concessions, but they see them as temporary necessities on the road to majority government.

Are they correct in that?

For the moment, the coalition is in power and as the lawyers say, possession is nine points of the law. It has a majority large enough to last for the five years of a full Parliament — if it stays together — and it is proposing a constitutional change (namely, requiring a 55 percent super-majority for a parliamentary dissolution) that would more or less compel it to stay together. It has the approval of the establishment (even of the liberal establishment) since it is seen as a Lib-Dem government supported by Tories rather than the reverse. It is enjoying some modest popularity with almost everyone else. (But not excessively so — two recent polls show the Tories have gained 1 percent approval and the Lib-Dems have lost 3 percent before a single painful measure has been implemented.) And it floats along on the optimistic calculation that governments can shape events to suit their interests. That is a partial truth; governments are also hostage to events over which they have only modest control. The event that is fast approaching this coalition is a budgetary statement on June 22 that will inevitably inflict heavy costs on the voters in some combination of tax rises and public-spending cuts. How will a coalition riven by serious ideological divisions survive the prolonged unpopularity that economic distress will bring? Will Lib-Dems retreat from bold retrenchment when the going gets tough? Will Tories stay loyal if UKIP starts winning special elections?

One ominous sign for the coalition is the cheerful spirit of Labour MPs. They feel they dodged a bullet when Clegg went with Cameron rather than Brown. If a Lib-Lab government were today preparing a list of spending cuts for June 22, they know, they would be facing Armageddon in what would have been a much-too-soon election. They suffered no meltdown and have a solid base of 258 seats in Parliament. Rid of Brown, they are electing a new leader in a contest that will help give them a new image. And they are already beginning to work out how to exploit the coalition’s weaknesses on immigration, on the EU, and above all on the economic crisis for which they will shortly shrug off all responsibility.

One distinguished Cameroon recently justified forming the coalition with the argument that the Tories could never fully detoxify themselves in opposition. All an opposition can do is promise. Cameron needed to be in government, he said, in order to take the actions that would decisively change the image of the Tory party in a way no promise could do.   

Exactly, responded a Labour supporter, thinking of June 22.

Mainstream Tories, however, have even more reason to ponder the same question. If the coalition manages to survive whatever difficulties lie ahead, they will presumably have to acquiesce in any number of concessions to the Lib-Dems and in a positive culling of their own party’s interests. The coalition is likely to foster a political culture in which conservative values and attitudes lie at the outer edge of the politically possible. One can already sense this happening in the welcome that some Tories now give to the idea of electoral reform. How passionately will they support the traditional “First Past the Post” electoral system in the coming referendum? And will Tory party discipline require MPs to campaign for FPTP in the referendum as firmly as it will require them to vote for electoral-reform legislation in the Commons? If the Tory leadership consistently leans to the Lib-Dems on such questions, the image (and reality) of the Tory party will gradually change. Both will become progressively less conservative.

And what happens if the coalition falls apart? Such a divorce might not necessarily divide the existing Tory and Lib-Dem parties. Events and issues largely determine these things. There could be a split within one party with the coalition remaining broadly intact. If the Lib-Dem Left were to depart, that would presumably strengthen the coalition’s conservative tendencies. But what if the rebellion were a substantial Tory one — maybe, as in 1922, one launched by a majority of Tories? Would Cameron side with the majority of his own party or with the coalition loyalists in both parties? And if 55 percent of MPs voted for a dissolution, would the coalition endorse its own candidates against the Tory rebels?

Five years after Cameron became Tory leader, these are not questions that answer themselves. In opposition, Cameronism has looked like, at best, a tactical judgment not to oppose the main cultural tendencies of post-Thatcher metropolitan liberalism, at worst a permanent surrender to it. A Tory government would have gradually established which was the correct interpretation. A coalition government will maintain this uncertainty for as long as it remains in being. For every liberal measure, Tory ministers will have the excuse that, however distasteful it is to them personally, it is also a concession absolutely essential to keeping the coalition in power. The worse the opinion polls, the more persuasive this argument would be to backbenchers. Over time, conservatives in government would become comfortable with making liberal arguments and impatient with right-wing criticism. Eventually they might persuade themselves. The Tory party would surrender to metropolitan liberalism by degrees — even if this were not Cameron’s original intention.

So it is essential for Tories inside and outside of Parliament (and, ideally, inside the government, too) to maintain a calm, steady, but unrelenting critique of liberal tendencies in coalition policy and a firm advocacy of realistic conservative alternatives. This would be a policy of criticism rather than of rebellion, but it might require occasional revolts on those issues more important than maintaining the coalition itself. Without a Tory willingness to rebel, the coalition will drift in a liberal direction; without a constant stream of Tory arguments, it will fail to move in the right direction.

Tory backbenchers must be both sheet and anchor to the Con-Lib coalition. Otherwise the Tory defeats will continue — even if lightly camouflaged as victories for the Cameroons.

– John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review. This piece is adapted from “Poisoned Chalice,” which ran in the June 7 edition of NR.



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