The differing approaches of the Lib Dem and Tory leaderships

by Stephen Tall on May 20, 2010

The Guardian reports an interesting, and revealing, distinction between the respective leadership styles of the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg and the Conservatives’ David Cameron.

The two party leaders gave a taste of their different styles of leadership yesterday as they consulted their parties [on the full coalition ement, to be published today]. Clegg and his fellow Lib Dem ministers presented the document to a meeting of their parliamentary party last night where MPs and peers were taken through the document page by page.

Cameron used a meeting of the Tory parliamentary party to announce an immediate ballot to limit the power of backbench Tory MPs. In a move condemned by right wingers, who said Cameron was behaving like a North Korean leader, Tory MPs were asked to approve a change that will allow ministers to attend meetings of the backbench 1922 committee.

Before the election there was much inane media chatter about how coalition negotiations would be rendered practically impossible by the Lib Dems’ democratic structures.

In particular, the so-called ‘triple lock’ system (whereby any coalition deal had to be agreed by the parliamentary party, the federal executive and potentially a special conference of members) was sneered at as a cumbersome hindrance.

The reality could scarcely have been more different: it was the party’s democratic structures which strengthened the Lib Dem leadership’s hands in negotiations, with our negotiating team able to say (quite truthfully) that unless key elements of the Lib Dem manifesto were included the deal would never stand a chance of being approved.

In stark contrast, the Tories – neither their MPs nor their members – have any such hold on the leadership, have no real way of holding it to account. As a result, the Tory right-wing was comprehensively outmanouevured last week by David Cameron, and is still visibly winded by the sheer scale of consessions granted to the Lib Dems. And now even the cherished independence of the 1922 committee is threatened with neutering by the Tory leader with the inclusion of the ‘payroll vote’.

Yesterday Nick Clegg stood up as Deputy Prime Minister to announce a vast rolling back of Labour’s centralising state, a re-assertion of traditional British civil liberties, and political reforms that will transfer powers back to the people.

That he is in a position to do any of this is because of the party’s democratic structures: it is the very fact that Nick Clegg does not control a centralised party that strengthens his leadership.

It’s a subtle truth about power the Conservatives appear not yet to have grasped.