My Times ‘Thunderer’ column: Jeremy Browne has yet to show that “Thatcherism plus immigration” will prove to be a vote-winner

by Stephen Tall on April 15, 2014

Here’s my piece for The Times’s Thunderer column, which was published there yesterday:

Jeremy Browne is on the hunt for “a bold, ambitious liberal party”. The Lib Dem MP does not believe his own party quite cuts it, pointedly criticising Team Clegg as “an ill-defined moderating centrist party” in an interview with The Times this weekend.

Fired-at-will as home office minister by his leader six months ago, Browne’s initial response to his sacking was properly liberal: he grew a beard. Then he did something more indelible: he wrote a book, Race Plan, published last week.

It is a full-throated rallying cry for the Lib Dems to return to what Browne terms ‘authentic liberalism’: the nineteenth-century Gladstonian ideal of a low-tax economy and pared down state, of a Britain chock-full of pioneering entrepreneurs, a self-confident and engaged world power.

His proposals are a distinctly Thatcherite manifesto – school vouchers, insurance-funded healthcare, payment-by-results – though his pro-immigration enthusiasm would have fallen foul of the Iron Lady’s infamous fear that Britain “might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”.

I have some good news for Jeremy Browne. The liberal party of his dreams already exists. It is pro-globalisation, state-sceptic, intensely relaxed about private profit, freedom loving, an advocate of tax-cuts, deregulation and deficit reduction.

But I also have some bad news for him. This perfect-fit party is in Germany: it’s the FDP. The worse news is that after its last experience of coalition government with a centre-right, larger party, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the FDP was obliterated from the German parliament.

And that’s the key problem with Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan: it doesn’t explain how his free market purity will build a vibrant political party that’s attractive to the electorate. He rightly dismisses those who regard the Lib Dem identity as little more than “socialism plus civil liberties”. Yet he fails to show how “Thatcherism plus immigration” will prove to be a vote-winner.

In contrast, the Team Clegg strategy is clear: for the Lib Dems to be seen as a ‘well-defined moderating centrist party’. It’s not a prospect which excites party activists, who would like nothing better than to campaign as radical liberals. But in reality it’s because we are reckoned to be the fair-minded Goldilocks party (not too hot, not too cold) that people vote for us.

If the Lib Dems are to continue as a party of government, then there will be no alternative but to do a deal next year with either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. We’ll fight 2015 from the moderate centre because there’s no other position from which we can credibly fight it.