Monday, 17 February 2014

National Liberals - Threat or Opportunity?

Canadians absolutely hate it when Americans call them "nice". LibDems on the other hand seem to regard such an epithet as a mark of honour. And yet, one sometimes wonders if the "niceness" is the Party's feet of clay. The current agonising in the deepest bowels of the Party over whether to defenestrate Nick Clegg shows that the Machiavellians/Survivalists are still massively outnumbered by the "Nice Guys'.

Several months back a flurry was created when Nick Boles, pictured below, the Tory MP for Grantham (how is that for irony) floated the idea of the relaunch of the National Liberals. It was an idea that is easier said than done firstly because the name is already taken and secondly because such a task to be successful would require a lot of organisation, none of which has been evident so far. 

First we might hark back to Wikipedia "The National Liberal Party, known until 1948 as the Liberal National Party, was a liberal political party in the United Kingdom from 1931 to 1968. It broke away from the Liberal Party, and later merged with the Conservative Party.

The Liberal Nationals evolved as a distinctive group within the Liberal Party when the main body of Liberals were maintaining in office the second Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald, who lacked a majority in Parliament. A growing number of Liberal MPs led by Sir John Simon declared their total opposition to this policy and began to co-operate more closely with the Conservative Party."

In the above case it was a third party having a schism and the difference with the current proposal is that the Boles proposal would involve the Tory Party doing the splitting with an unknown number of MPs peeling themselves off and creating a liberal wing of the Tory Party, lifting up their skirts and flashing their knees at Orange Bookers in the LibDems and luring the right-wing of our Party into this new combination. 

Its an intriguing idea. It is in essence the potential apogee of the group known as Bright Blue. This group consists of the liberal wing of the Tory Party. If we give credit where credit is due it has quite a lot of the intellectual heavyweights of that party on board. Here is a list: 

Not all of those names would strike a LibDem as left-wing Tories. Michael Gove is a favorite dart-board in LibDem circles and Maria Miller has "issues" at the moment that potentially make her unwelcome in any camp. David Willets is known as "two-brains" in some circles so maybe he compensates for some of the lesser lights in an averaging up exercise. Interestingly Ann McIntosh and Tim Yeo, the latest poster-children for intolerance in the Tories towards free-thinking MPs are not members of this group. They would definitely look like potential National Liberals to me. Guy Opperman is missing from Bright Blue, even though he seems a rather liberal chap and Dominic Raab is definitely a libertarian if not a liberal. He has done more to oppose NSA snooping than many in our own crew. Anyone who opposes the NSA is a friend of mine.  

Some in our Party saw the Boles' initiative as a continuation of Grant Shapps' attempts to lure Jeremy Browne out of the LibDems in the wake of his disgraceful firing by NC and the vitriolic campaign against him from within. Browne resisted the Shapps blandishments with aplomb. We suspect however that the Boles' initiative is self-generated. LibDems took it as a cunning Tory plot to divide and rule. However being of the Antipodean persuasion myself, like Lynton Crosby, I cannot see how creation of new stalking horse parties is something in the Crosby playbook. In Australia, third parties have had only severely limited success (the DLP from 1956 to the 1970s) and the Australian Democrats from the 1980s). In neither case were these created by fiat of the party from which they split. Far form it, the DLP split from Labor cast that party into outer darkness from 1956 to the 1972 and even longer in some State governments. So Australians playing splits with their own party would be a dangerous game indeed. We suspect Crosby is NOT behind the Boles move. 

The irony of ironies is that David Cameron himself seems to be more liberal than most of his MPs and is not a Bright Bluer, understandably.

Would the Bright Blue crowd decamp by design or accident to a new set-up? How would this happen? When? Would they glean any LibDems along the way? What would their policies be?

The National Liberals in their original manifestation were essentially a very small group, united in their dislike of the personality politics of David Lloyd-George and his dalliances with the Labour Party government. The Bright Blue crowd are pretty large and seem to be economically and socially liberal (something not all LibDem members can attest to being). Would they all go? Would their branches go with them? Would there be a non-aggression pact? By that we mean the Tories would not contest NL seats and vice versa. For this to happen there would have to be agreement from within the Tory party. Would they also make up a list of seats that they would contest to confound the LibDems? These would probably be seats where the LibDems were coming in second in 2010. That could be a dangerous game that might steal votes from the Tories too, letting LibDems slip in. Would the NLs stand in some of the safer (Tory-facing) LibDem seats as a means of splitting the vote? Would the Tories not run a candidate in those seats? Would they not stand in Labour-facing LibDem seats to confound Labour from gaining more seats? The possibilities are endless... Would our Party be on speaking terms with these interlopers?

What is the timing of all this and the mechanism? Post-2015 or before? First step would be to secure a name. The current working title was seemingly snatched from the history books without checking that it was available. Only the most deeply political wonks would know that there does indeed exist a party of that name:

While it seems to have a footprint in Havering.. it doesn't seem to have much reach beyond that. I guess they could cut a deal with them, purge the vehicle and use that as the operating platform for the "defectors". Bright Blue with its organisers, managers and marketing crew could just be backdoored into the nearly empty National Liberal vessel. 

Depending on how many Bright Blue people were willing (or ordered) to jump ship, the new structure could go down the launch ramp either with a full complement or skeleton crew. Nick Boles would hope he wasn't captaining the Marie Celeste. Maybe that is why the concept is taking so long in the gestation.

So what is the threat? Well quite a lot of LibDems are not happy campers at the moment with the Coalition  being the bĂȘte noire of some and Nick Clegg being the lightning rod for others. Of our current MPs, there could be a small group who might defect to a NL grouping. Jeremy Browne would be an easy to conjure with name, others are harder to identify as so few of our current MPs seem to have colours pinned to their masts. Leech? Some of those in the most marginal seats?

Certainly having two Liberal parties slugging it out in May 2015 will mightily confuse the electorate. The danger is that the NLs can project a more cogent Liberal agenda than the LibDems with our policies having been so shape-shifting over the last four years. We could be attacked on not being Liberal enough... which is what we are constantly flagellating ourselves for internally on a daily basis. Its a claim that could be made to stick.  

What is the opportunity? Hmmm.. well, our party at the current time does remind me of the old adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Its structure and thinking is a compromise from the days of the SDP/Liberal merger. As I wrote recently the PPC selection process is quite amateur and not designed to chose good MPs, let alone ministerial material. If a merger was ultimately engineered between these NLs and the LibDems then there would be an infusion of thinkers into our party and a reinvigoration of our ranks of MPs with a more rounded crew. Frankly the Bright Blue crowd has more ministerial potential than our rank and file MPs. 

A merger with this new entity would be years in the future though, after one or two terms of slugfest.

In the shorter term a National Liberal launch could steal some of our votes (while reinvigorating the political centre where most voters dwell).. it could unite our party (yet also spur the ousting of NC)... it could mean a Tory/National Liberal Coalition post-2015... with us being the nose pressed up against the glass and NLs in and us out... 

So the ball is now in Nick Boles' court.. the initiative is his for the moment...

1 comment:

  1. Great article by a political historian....