Friday 23 July 2010

David Davis suggests Cameron will offer Clegg a "coupon" election

David Davis is making trouble for the Coalition again, perhaps inadvertently. My favourite detail in the Financial Times scoop account of how the former Shadow Home Secretary came unstruck is that the "Boot and Flogger" sounds a splendid place for the Tory right to let off steam.

Mr Davis made his remarks to businessmen, including former colleagues from Tate & Lyle, during a private lunch at the Boot and Flogger wine bar in Southwark, London, on Thursday within earshot of everyone at the establishment.

A Boot and Flogger Parliamentary Club would be an ideal name for a guerrilla "Real/Continuity 1922" backbench force.

No doubt it is Davis' description of the Cameron-Clegg relationship as the "Brokeback Coalition" which will get most attention.

With Davis speaking in a private setting, there are several "political correctness gone mad" type references to women, ethnic minorities and David Laws being gay which would appear to add to the evidence that the (very welcome) Conservative shift to social liberalism can, sometimes, remain work in progress.

And Davis may get into trouble for the political sin of truth-telling when it comes to the Big Society. As the FT reports:

In comments that reflect Labour attacks on the government, Mr Davis said the “Big Society”, was just “a Blairite dressing” for the coalition’s small government agenda.

“The corollary of the big society is the smaller state. If you talk about the small state, people think you’re Attila the Hun. If you talk about the big society, people think you’re Mother Teresa,” he said.

In passing, the former Europe Minister no doubt speaks for much sceptic backbench opinion when he comments that the “proper answer for the eurozone is to expel the Deutschmark”, with perhaps an echo of the late Nicholas Ridley.

So Davis certainly gives good quote. And Big Beast does speak for much Tory opinion in his view that the Coalition is better structured to deal with the LibDems than with the Tory party. (Paul Goodman's incisive analysis of the discontent on the Tory right for the Guardian captures this well).

But so many good lines might mean that the really interesting point may be missed.

The most striking comment are not those which confirm Davis' fairly well-known private antipathy towards the Coalition but his putting on the record (apparently sympathetically, despite being a Coalition-sceptic) current Westminster discussions of how the Tories might decide to offer the LibDems a way out of opinion poll blues which both parties feel are almost certain to get rather worse.

This all remains entirely hypothetical and speculative - but the (inevitable) denials that anybody is thinking or talking about such scenarios should be taken with a pinch of salt.

This is what Davis thinks Orange Book LibDems from the Clegg wing would find an unrefusable offer to split their own party:

Mr Davis went on to suggest that it “would not hurt” the Conservatives if their coalition partners split. Most of the rightwing Lib Dem MPs held “seats that should be Tory”.

He suggested that the Tories could agree not to run against “20 or 25” such Lib Dems as part of an electoral pact. He said given their party’s weakness, this would be “an offer you can’t refuse” for a “guaranteed seat for life”.


Now LibDems this week showed a rather shaky grasp of their own history, as demonstrated by Hopi Sen, with party HQ making and defending the false claim that Clegg was the first Liberal leader to take PMQs since 1922.

Though LibDem campaigns guru and history scholar Mark Pack offered an interesting response, surely the central issue was much less about the history of Prime Minister's Questions, as about the apparent LibDem failure to recognise that Asquith was Liberal leader in 1922, albeit of a rump party on the opposition benches which was to be out of office for almost nine decades.

That was because Lloyd George had split the party through the "Coupon election" gambit which left the great radical as a prisoner of the Tories, still heading a coalition to give it a cross-party image despite having helped to give the Tories a single-party majority in the Commons in the General Election.

The Liberal Democrat History Group has a good account of the cataclysmic consequences for the party of the Lloyd George split:

Initially, Lloyd George had assured his former Liberal colleagues that the contest would in no way impair the unity of the Liberal Party. At a Downing Street meeting, following the announcement of the election, Lloyd George told sympathetic Liberals that the joint Coalition manifesto represented a perfectly clear and satisfactory exposition of Liberal policy. The Daily Chronicle hack, Harry Jones exclaimed that 'the walls of Downing Street had never heard more democratic sentiments or a speech more instinct with the spirit of true Liberalism, from the lips of any statesman'. The premier declared that he remained true to the Liberal faith in free trade and peace and indicated that a desire for revenge should not be permitted to dominate the peace settlement with Germany, which should be driven by the notion of justice

... Yet, within days he was openly attacking his former colleagues and questioning their claim to support the Coalition. His moderate Liberal tones and talk of a righteous peace were replaced by a call to 'Make Germany Pay' and the government began issuing lists of coupon candidates to help the electors determine where their loyalties should lie.

Historians have debated the motive behind this volte-face, but most agree that it reflected Lloyd George's belief that Liberalism was ultimately doomed; a belief apparent in the conversation he had with Ridell in January 1918, when he told the press magnate that 'the Liberal Party was a thing of the past that could not be resuscitated'. Trevor Wilson claims that Lloyd George was therefore keen to use the election as a means to salvage his own political future and consolidate his personal support.

Could history repeat itself?

Who knows. What is obvious is that, either before or even after the end of the Coalition, it would make a great deal of strategic political sense for the Conservatives to offer Nick Clegg and some Orange Book allies a "coupon" which would both save their skins and split their party. Of course, that would be bad for the LibDems, who would hope and expect that their leader to refuse, just as it was when their former leader made his choice 1918-22. (One obvious scenario would be for the Tories to make such an offer as a lifeline to Clegg were he ever the victim of an internal party leadership coup to end the Coalition; and the threat of such an outcome could well become an implicit important 'nuclear option' deterrent for the leader against coup whispers if things are tough in a couple of years time).

To take what Davis thinks would be an offer too good to refuse would make Clegg a modern LibDem Lloyd George or Ramsay MacDonald. So it may never happen. But it is not difficult to sketch out a potential alignment of interests which makes the possibility difficult to rule out. And what we can say is that every previous Tory-Liberal alliance has led to an attempt at some form of Parliamentary realignment of this kind.

The main problem in the summer of 2010 is that David Davis making the discussion more public now is not the sort of collegiate assistance which will do Nick Clegg or his party absolutely any favours at all.

Whether or not he loses any sleep over that, only Davis himself will know.

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