Nick Boles MP (left) and Daniel Hannan MEP
Daniel Johnson: You've both produced remarkable books, you've both played an important part in the intellectual regeneration of the Conservative Party, but you do represent very different points of view. The best way to highlight that is to focus, Nick, on your proposition that the coalition, if it is to do the job properly, needs to last two parliaments, not one. That requires some sort of electoral pact in 2015. Can two parties that remain in coalition for over ten years continue to be two parties, or will they become a Liberal-Conservative party? Dan, what do you make of this proposition?
Daniel Hannan: It's a matter of historical fact that these coalitions tend to lead to a political realignment. The Tories gobbled up the Liberal Unionists in 1912; they gobbled up a number of Lloyd George "coupon" Liberals after the First World War; they gobbled up the National Liberals after the Second World War. A consequence of those past mergers is that there is a liberal strain in the Conservative Party. The present coalition offers us a unique opportunity to marry the economic liberalism of the Conservative Party with the political radicalism of the Lib Dems. Nick makes the point in his book [Which Way's Up? The future of coalition Britain and how to get there, Biteback, £8.99] that, if Gladstone were around today, he'd probably be a Conservative; and I think that's right. There are a number of Gladstonians in the Conservative Party, including me. Which side would I have been on in the great polar divisions of British history? I'd have been for Parliament in 1642, for the Revolution in 1689, for Reform in 1832 and for Gladstone against Disraeli. I suspect I'd have been one of those traditional Whigs who left the Liberal Party when it began its drift towards social democracy at the end of the nineteenth century, and who ended up as Conservatives: as you know, the "and Unionist" bit in my party's title dates from their formal accession. A similar merger might be on its way again, but whether or not it happens isn't really in the Tories' gift; it has more to do with the internal dynamics of the Liberal Democrats.
DJ: But if you were David Cameron would you offer a pact of that sort?
DH: Not this side of a general election: it's inadvisable to look as though you're taking the voters for granted. Much more seemly to wait and see what hand you've been dealt on polling day, and then play it accordingly.
DJ: Nick, what's your view on this?
Nick Boles: I guess I have a high and a low argument. The high argument is that while the two parties don't agree on lots of things, actually on the biggest challenges facing the country, the biggest transformations and reforms that we need to implement, there is a surprising degree of agreement. So both Daniel and I and large parts of the Liberal Democrat Party are radical localists. That's a huge thing we have to do and frankly it could on its own consume most of the energies of this government. We also believe that the key challenge for the state is actively to spread opportunity through education and other things to the least well-off in society, leading people up, as it were, making the playing field more level. That again is something that both parties share. My argument is that that's the high-principle argument — that there's enough in common to keep us busy for at least ten years. Not necessarily forever — which would then speak for merger — but just for the time we're in. The low argument is this: MPs, particularly but not only Liberal Democrat MPs, are going to come under a lot of pressure over the next few years. MPs sitting on very small majorities are going to feel particularly vulnerable to that pressure. I do feel that it would be good if a message was being sent to those MPs letting them know that if you stick with us, if you go through the dark days and the tough times with the coalition, remain loyal, vote our measures through, there will be a reward at the next election.
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