Coalition threatens Lib Dems with oblivion

The 'Brokeback' speech by David Davis casts light on the possible demise of the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 general election, argues James Turley

David Davis’s scathing account of the internal dynamics and possible future of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition are most revealing. He made the mistake (or otherwise) of loudly discussing, at the Boot and Flogger public house in Southwark, parliamentary business with various suits from Tate and Lyle, for whom he worked for 17 years - and doing so within earshot of no less than three journalists from the Financial Times.

Davis, of course, is no mere Tory backbench MP. A former Europe minister and the man David Cameron unexpectedly beat for the Tory leadership in 2005, Davis comes from humble origins. He was brought up on a south London council estate and attended the local grammar school. Interestingly, his father, whom he met only once, was a member of the CPGB. Davis joined the Territorial Army’s 21 SAS regiment in order to get the extra money needed for him to retake his A levels and get into university. He was elected to parliament in the 1987 general election and was seen as a man to watch. Nowadays Davis is thought of as a Tory rightwing warhorse - but also something of a maverick. Famously he resigned his seat in protest at Tory support for the extension of detention without trial to 42 days (for this supposed libertarian, 28 days is enough). In the high profile by-election he won with 72% of the vote.

When it comes to the Boot and Flogger, the media has primarily focused on one, relatively uninteresting jibe, whereby Davis allegedly described the formation headed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg as a “Brokeback coalition”. The reference, obviously, is to Brokeback Mountain, a film (and short story) about the complicated love affair of two men in the American west, and a dispute rages as to whether Davis (and the ever-meddling Lord Ashcroft, who supposedly coined the phrase) stands thus revealed as a homophobe. Davis denies he said it at all, but such a description of those two public school PR niceniks does give us a snapshot of the bigotry that still stalks the Tory right.

Yet the rest of Davis’s ramblings are a little more meaty in political terms. Davis scoffed at Cameron’s Big Society programme, calling it a bit of Blairite spin: “The corollary of the big society is the smaller state. If you talk about the small state, people think you’re Attila the Hun. If you talk about the Big Society, people think you’re Mother Teresa.” In this, of course, he is absolutely correct - provided you substitute ‘brutal public service cuts’ for ‘the small state’, which is a bit of vapid spin in its own right.

Davis complains more generally that the Lib Dems are getting an easier ride than the Tories, barring the Cameroon leadership faction. The government, he claimed rather cryptically, “has a mechanism for dealing with the Liberal Party, most of whom are inside the coalition. It does not have a mechanism for dealing with the Conservative Party, most of whom are outside the coalition.”

This is a little more counter-intuitive - after all, the coalition is an austerity government on a truly unprecedented scale; far from resembling a political compromise between the Tories and the Lib Dems, its policies are more Thatcherite than Thatcher by some considerable distance. Yet it is no accident that Davis has been forced to retract (or rather deny) the ‘Brokeback’ jibe. At a grassroots level the bulk of the Conservative Party is interested in far more than balancing the country’s books. After all, this party is an alliance of naked careerists, Church of England traditionalists, fawning monarchists, the mean-minded petty bourgeoisie, those nostalgic for 1950s deference and the full array of wing-nut reactionaries.

When the Tory membership was first allowed to vote for its leader in 2001, it gave us Iain Duncan Smith, whose utter lack of public profile obscured his bilious politics. Michael Howard succeed Duncan Smith unopposed in 2003, and David Cameron - who got the nod from the members in a run-off against Davis in 2005, though Howard had wanted to deny the rank and file any say in the proceedings - has since behaved in impeccably Blairoid fashion, parachuting in candidates and cronies wherever he can. They are predominantly young (by Tory standards), and are kept rigorously on message.

The Tory far right thus finds itself, like the Labour left in the New Labour era, out in the cold. However, in the Conservative Party there remains a substantial rump of far-right MPs, peddling very familiar xenophobic and patriarchal gibberish, which in turn represents a substantial portion of the grassroots support.

In conditions of coalition government, Cameron’s hand in all this is considerably strengthened: Lib Dem participation gives him an all-purpose excuse for ‘capitulating’ on the Tory right’s hot-button issues - immigration, ‘law and order’ and above all Europe. Davis is wrong - Cameron has a perfect mechanism for dealing with dissident Tories, and it is called Nick Clegg. ‘We don’t have the votes for this,’ Cameron can tell his unruly MPs when they threaten to embarrass him atop their Little Englander hobby horses. ‘The Lib Dems will never buy it.’

As for Clegg and the Lib Dems themselves, speculations as to a split have been in motion since they entered into government in May. After years cultivating a public profile in many ways to the left of New Labour, Clegg’s decision to join the Tories in pursuing a very different programme has alienated large parts of the party’s support. Thousands of former Lib Dems have taken out Labour Party cards, as the ‘moderating’ influence of the former party on the Tories looks increasingly hollow. For Cameron the coalition is clearly working and there is informed talk of running coalition candidates in the 2015 general election. Opinion polls show Tory support has risen since May; meanwhile Lib Dems ratings have plummeted by as much as 10%.

Good news for Cameron - now the Lib Dems have much more to lose than the Tories should the government fall. The more alienated Lib Dem voters become from Clegg, Cable and co, the more reliant they are on the coalition agreement.

This is not a situation lost on Davis. A split in the Lib Dems, he speculated to his chums from Tate and Lyle, would be a boon. The Tories would be well advised to let the 20-25 rightmost Liberal Democrats in parliament stand unopposed in the next election - in return they would effectively become Tory MPs. Since their seats are in ‘natural’ Tory constituencies, this amounts to a job for life; Davis’s putative deal would be “an offer you can’t refuse”.

If this is merely speculation, it is not the first time the idea has come up. In the run-up to the election, The Guardian commentator Simon Jenkins had some advice for Clegg: “His best bet is to grab a good job from whichever leader offers it, and wave a cheery goodbye to the party of lost cause that he now leads” (April 27). Sooner or later, there will be a general election, on the back of unprecedented cuts and very possibly a further economic slump. The Lib Dems will need a miracle to survive.

There are fault lines in both parts of the coalition, then - but it should not be viewed as weak. Indeed, the Lib Dems can do little more than attempt to protect the coalition for as long as possible, since their junior role in a vicious government will spell doom come polling day if they stand independently of the coalition. Moreover, individuals like Clegg, Vince Cable and David Laws - the yellow ties in the cabinet - are decidedly from the neoliberal right wing of the Lib Dems, with every interest in continuing to be government ministers.

This government is not only nasty - it is dangerous; and David Davis’s grumblings over a liquid lunch are ultimately a testament to its strength. It will not topple at the first trade union day of action - the working class has to plan strategically for a long and bitter struggle against Clegg and Cameron.