It’s often remarked of the Prime Minister that he is good at getting out of a crisis, but too prone to stumbling into them. Certainly, David Cameron has never shown any tendency to panic, even if those close to him remark on his occasionally short temper.
But as this parliament reaches its halfway point, one wonders if simply holding his nerve will be enough for Cameron to rescue his government from what increasingly looks like an endless series of accidents and gaffes.
More crucially, the much trumpeted centrepiece of his policy programme — closing the budget deficit — is starting to veer off course and has no prospect of being completed by the time of the next election. The initial target date of 2015 has already been put back by two years and a further drift seems probable.
In electoral terms, there is nothing particularly surprising about the governing party finding itself ten points or more behind in the opinion polls 30 months after coming to office. Many governments have recovered from worse. But the portents for Cameron’s Conservatives are bleak. The likelihood of a substantial economic recovery before the 2015 election has receded dramatically. Indeed, if the situation in the eurozone deteriorates further, we might even face the prospect of a shrinking economy over the next three years. The redrawing of parliamentary constituency boundaries, which would have given the Tories a boost of a dozen or more seats, has crashed into the buffers as the Liberal Democrats have exacted revenge for their failure to achieve Lords reform.
In consequence, Cameron needs not merely to close the opinion poll gap with Labour, but to build up a substantial overall lead to have any hope of forming a stable, Conservative majority government. The chances of the Tories winning by default, which looked possible as Ed Miliband took time to find his feet as leader of the opposition, have substantially diminished.
Cameron now needs to strike out and pursue a bold new strategy. In short, he should seek an electoral alliance with those members of the Liberal Democrats with whom he believes he could provide a fiscally sound and genuinely reforming second term in office. He would risk further alienating the wing of his party who are finding the Lib Dems an irritating drag on pursuing radical yet key supply-side reforms, but it’s a risk he could and should take. The arrangement he should seek with free market-leaning (“Orange Book”) Lib Dem MPs should be unilateral but not universal. It would essentially amount to an offer to withdraw the Conservative candidate from those seats in which an incumbent Liberal was willing publicly to take a pledge to continue the work of the coalition beyond 2015, specifically in regard to swiftly completing the process of fiscal consolidation, preferably at a rather more rapid pace than at present.
This would not amount to a full-blown alliance and would allow the Lib Dems and Conservatives to continue to run on distinct and separate manifestos. It would differ from the “Coupon Election” of 1918, when supporters of the Liberal-Tory coalition led by Lloyd George were endorsed by the two party leaders with a “coupon” and did not stand against each other. However, individual Lib Dem MPs willing to state that they would seek, as a preference, to work with the Tories after the election to tackle the deficit and cap our national debt, would effectively be “couponed”. Not every Lib Dem MP would be willing to make such a statement, but perhaps 20 or so would.
The attraction to Orange Book Liberal Democrats would be obvious. With their party often failing to get into double digits, many Lib Dems are relying on a remarkable turnaround in their electoral fortunes to cling on to their seats. For those Lib Dems holding office, the situation is starker still. Not only do they find it harder to distinguish themselves politically from their coalition partners, but they have far less ability to practise the tried and tested Lib Dem technique of “digging in” in their own constituency. If you are a government minister, your ability to pound the pavements of your local patch and to be a constant presence at civic functions is substantially diminished. Your chances of retaining your seat as an active local campaigner, rather than merely a name on a party ticket, fall dramatically.
The strategy has potential benefits for the Conservatives, too. Although it would be close to admitting that an outright Tory majority was beyond them, it could entrench a couple of dozen Liberal MPs as part of a less temporary coalition committed to fiscal prudence and structural economic reform.
There is also a simple question of resources. Do the Conservatives really consider it wise to expend considerable amounts of time, energy and money attempting to unseat, say, David Laws in Yeovil or Jeremy Browne in Taunton? Might such efforts be better directed towards retaining current Conservative seats or perhaps even making a few gains from Labour? The coalition has sought to portray itself as an operation to clear up the mess left by the substantial overspending of the previous administration. But is that really the height of the government’s aspiration?
Boris Johnson raised a laugh in his Birmingham speech by comparing the Prime Minister to a broom and senior Cabinet ministers to a range of other dreary household utensils. There are worse things to be than a government of domestic cleaners. But it is a miserable and uninspiring agenda. Much more needs to be done than simply balancing the government’s books over seven years. We need dramatic reform of public services, a liberalisation of our economy, a substantial transfer of power away from bureaucrats to individual men and women and a society which celebrates and rewards enterprise.
To achieve just that, the Prime Minister should reach beyond the confines of the Conservative Party to build a wider coalition with classical liberals. The alternative could well be a one-term administration which promised very little and delivered even less.