Saturday, 22 February 2014

Parsing the Bright Blue Crew into the National Liberals

I wrote the other day on the logistics of the National Liberal experiment of Nick Boles with the conclusion that it was in some ways doable, but needed serious fleshing out as a concept, let alone a plan of action. Ostensibly to the public eye nothing much has happened with the scheme since it was first publicly aired many months ago. That is not to say that Mr Boles has not been beavering away (cue the cuddly animal) on a strategy to make the concept into reality.  

So to help him out.. or moreover the rest of us..I took Bright Blue's parliamentary supporters from the BrightBlue website and put them into a spreadsheet. The goal, only half-cooked, at this time was to speculate on what material the National Liberal concept had to work with. 

The metrics that felt most appropriate were the name of the MP, the constituency detail, whether said constituency was marginal or not, which party it is facing, how one might rank the MP as a social liberal, as an economic liberal and on a scale of one to ten as a classical liberal "type". Then I added some notes. 

The problem was not the first few categories but the latter ones. Their seat and which party is the challenge are obvious and while the seat's marginality may be matter of opinion one can make a learned guess and as a sometime psephologist I ventured my ten cents worth. The problem comes with assessing the true liberality of these individuals. Some I had pegged as desirables, e.g. Rory Stewart, even before Nick Boles had ventured his scheme. Many of the others though came down in the last shower (the 2010 elections) and are so low-key as to be mere shadows crossing the screen in the cinema of Westminster. Some are the political equivalents of deaf/mutes e.g. George Hollingbery or we might mention the incredible lightness of being Steve Brine. Many of the other names were unknown to me, hence the yawning blanks. It would be useful if others could offer their opinions on just where on the political spectrum these MP truly lie. 

Some are all too well known like Michael Gove, who far from having "liberal" credentials, has reserved himself a special place in LibDemonology for his stay at Education. Theresa May must be a right wing plant in Bright Blue as her "go home" buses fit nowhere in any liberal (big or small "l") vision of how one should behave. And as for Maria Miller, liberals may be nostalgic for the past but reminding us all of the expenses excesses of late last decade is not the sepia tinted picture we want to see. 

So what of the strategy... well, a glance at the marginality column shows that closet liberals are an endangered species in the Tory party with more of the Bright Bluers being in dangerous positions for May 2015, than those who are can rest on their laurels of a safe seat. Ironically its Boles and the heavyweights who are most safely positioned, with the other free-thinkers sitting perilously under multiple Damoclean swords.  

Fear not though for there are ways in which this could play out... this is of course spoken as a Machiavellian not in a partisan way.. oh, no..

Clearly the Tory party would not want to "demerge" (to use a banking term as I am after all a banker) its safest seats into a "spinco" called the National Liberals. You generally only outplace assets that are marginal (or undervalued) anyway. Thus most of the non-marginal MPs would (and should) get short-shrift if they think they can indulge in any free-thinking defections whether officially sanctioned or not. Of course, Boles would have to make the jump... and maybe Rory (to give the entity some intellectual heft)... but the others from the safe seats should not even be allowed by Lynton Crosby to toy with the idea of digging a tunnel out of the Tory stalag on pain of excommunication. 

The marginals though are a different story. If played right the marginals could be a case of saving the unsalvagable. By my count some 25 of the Bright Blue crew are sitting on dodgy seats. Though two of those are retiring, so the number we are talking would be 23 off the starting blocks.  

This would be the material that Boles has to work, with with 2-3 LibDems thrown into the mix (plus some other LibDem seats they might care to challenge in). The obvious modus operandi (at least for one election - 2015) would be to have the National Liberals stand unchallenged by the Tory branches in those seats. The logic would be that these NL candidates would be either Tory Lights or Liberal Heavies depending on which side of the spectrum you are looking at them from. This would mean the NL candidate would be up against either a LibDem challenger, a Labour challenger or a UKIP challenger. 

Given their druthers some of the old Tory vote might go to the UKIP but that was probably going to the UKIP anyway (making the marginal Tory MP even more nervous of staying Tory). The Labour voters would be well and truly confused. In most cases the seats we are talking about were LD-facing for the Tories anyway. Now the Labour voter sees no Tory on the slate and instead two liberals of varying colours plus a Labour candidate and a UKIP person. The tactical voting possibilities are endless. If part of the old LD vote was protest then it could also go anywhere, but most likely not to the UKIP. Its enough to make Ryan Coetzee's head explode. Ironically the only LibDem with the sangfroid to deal with such a challenge would be Lord Rennard.. Then again maybe he would join the National Liberals... 

The Tory HQ could limit the potential upside for the new spin-off party by only allowing them to contest their own seats, LibDem seats and a few Labour seats with maximum nuisance value (without Tory candidates standing against them). There would also have to be a compact.. secret of course.. written in stone.. or invisible ink.. that the NLs would go into coalition with the Tories after the election. No free-thinking allowed on that score. For most it would be six of one, half a dozen of the other.. they are in coalition now (even the LibDem defectors) why not?!

Many of the Bright Bluers are toast in any circumstance so there is not much to lose in such a strategy for the Tory HQ poobahs. Some NL candidates could be let loose on some Labour marginals as well... the one thing that is clear though is that the Bright Blue movement is pretty much an English one, with little Welsh and no Scottish component in the mix. Except for a couple of outliers (Penrith, Stourbridge, Keighley and West Worcestershire) it is also largely a movement of the South.   

The end result of all these machinations could be a C/NL/LD coalition, with Labour and the UKIP being bested by a fast-moving political shell-game. We can merely speculate about it here for if the Tories are giving Boles the time of day on this scheme then it will need more than sound-bites to get it happening. 


1 comment:

  1. My take on this is that the Boles' idea is nothing like creating or reestablishing another party, even one that would be in a European-like permanent alliance with the Tories.

    I think the goal rather is to recreate a 'one-nation' Conservative brand that can appeal to the centre ground in the way that the Conservatives used to be able to do much more effectively. I think it's a response to the party-destroying Peter Bone types who undermine the government and pursue extremist positions on issues of relatively little importance to average voters over party unity. Finally, it's an attempt to win small-c conservative Lib Dem voters to the Conservatives who are currently put off by the extremism.

    In other words, I don't think it's seen either by the Bright Blue crew or by the rest of the party as any kind of splittist threat to the Conservatives, because it's not. It's part of an internal struggle going on within the party. It's an attempt to revive liberal Conservativsm (with an emphasis on the Conservative), not an attempt to politically empower conservative Liberals (whether that be Lib Dems, 'Orange bookers' or 'national liberals' as a distinct party).

    I think it's incredibly difficult to set up new political parties with much chance of success. UKIP have come closest, but they don't have a single MP and are unlikely to gain many or any at the next general election, even if they do go into it with a similar share of the popular vote to us.

    Splitting from an existing party is one way around the problem: it brings with it existing MPs, some supporters and perhaps some party machinery, but it's hard to see where support would come from. No Labour or UKIP voter is going to look at a former Tory as anything but a Tory on sheep's clothing. The only way to keep much of the Conservative vote would be for the Tories to officially sanction the split and not stand opposing candidates. But the Tories haven't yet done this when given the opportunity to do this with UKIP candidates who are virtually indestinguishable from some of the current Tory crowd, so I don't see a Tory party made even more right wing by the departure of the liberal wing agreeing to do a deal. And if they did, it would put the lie to the National Liberals being anything other than a Tory front.