Rafael Behr, formerly of the New Statesman now at The Guardian, is my favourite political columnist. A brilliant writer, he is also dispassionately shrewd. So it is today, when he analyses the impact of the Lib Dems in Coalition.
It’s inspired by Norman Baker’s resignation – which, he rightly observes “says more about the Home Office than it does about the coalition more widely” – and examines how the Conservatives being forced to share power with the Lib Dems in Coalition has squeezed out what remains of liberal Conservatism:
It is true that the Lib Dems have inflicted serious damage on the Tories, but not in the way many of them seem to think.
The habitual complaint is that Clegg has held the government back from the path of authentic Tory radicalism, diluting its programme with welfarist sentimentality, constitutional navel-gazing, green mania and craven Europhilia. Of course, Labour says the Lib Dems have failed to defend any of those positions. But regardless of what Clegg’s ministers may have achieved, their very presence has shunted the Tories off liberal terrain to which Cameron once laid claim. They have squatted offices that might have been filled by moderate Conservatives. They have upset hardliners, who then needed placating with jobs and policy concessions.
In the eyes of many Conservatives, the Lib Dems have contaminated a whole set of attitudes that, while never likely to dominate a Tory agenda or deliver Cameron a landslide election victory, still ought to be in the repertoire of a large governing party: respect for human rights law; pragmatic diplomacy in Brussels; urgency about climate change. Without those leavening elements, the Tory focus becomes ever narrower and angrier, which is a reason why it doesn’t have a majority in parliament now and a factor restricting its appeal next May.
Rafael Behr’s conclusion is a depressing one for those few liberal Conservatives who remain. It’s also a depressing conclusion for all other Conservatives:
There are plenty of reasons why former Lib Dem voters might feel disappointed with Clegg for joining forces with Cameron, propping up a Tory government they thought they were voting to avoid. Their consolation is that the Lib Dems have made majority Conservative rule in Britain less likely for perhaps a generation. With Clegg in government, the liberal wing of the Conservative party has atrophied. It was a weak limb in 2010; now it has withered away almost entirely, and without it Cameron’s march towards the next election looks horribly lopsided.
He’s right. The Lib Dem problem is that no-one’s going to thank us for it.
You can read the article in full here.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.