Will the Tories' advances pay off?22 September 2009
The Conservatives have been busy love-bombing the Liberal Democrats. David Cameron has been pointing out the similarities between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems in many policy areas - localism, civil liberties issues such as ID cards - but it seems to be an unrequited affair.
Eric Pickles, the Conservative chairman, was interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme along with Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems' home affairs spokesman. While Pickles called Huhne "charming", Huhne sprayed back abuse, ranging from smearing Latvian MEPs as Nazi sympathisers to complaining about David Cameron having his papers driven for him in a car while he went ahead on a bike.
Huhne's remarks are mild compared to comments he was planning to make about William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary. Apparently Huhne wanted to describe Hague as "a skinhead who has gone round the beer cellars of Europe and come up with the dregs".
The Lib Dems support a European superstate and are keen to portray anyone who disagrees as a fascist or Nazi. In fact Oswald Mosley's enthusiasm for a federal Europe was similar to Huhne's. Hitler was also a fan of European integration in his own fashion. Some Eurosceptics may wish to trade abuse with Huhne in the same currency. But don't expect such intemperate responses from Cameron or Pickles. They will not be provoked. They are determined to keep love-bombing.
Huhne may not be susceptible. But other Lib Dems have been feeling the love. Pickles pointed to 50 Lib Dem councillors and nine former Lib Dem parliamentary candidates who have defected to the Conservatives. Also Sajjad Karim, a former Lib Dem MEP, now sits in the Conservative group with its new Eurosceptic allies. Evidently Karim is unconvinced by the dirt being thrown at them by his erstwhile colleagues.
More to the point are the Lib Dem voters. The Conservatives are reaching out to them. The theme "Time for a change" hurt the Tories in 1997. It will do the reverse next time. Part of that will be about some Lib Dems voting tactically to secure a change of government. The Tories are keen to make it easy for them. "You can vote Conservative without necessarily being a Conservative," is the message. Rather an American touch. Like "Democrats for Reagan" or "Republicans for Obama".
What will the upshot of all this love-bombing be if there is a hung parliament after the next election, with the Conservatives as the largest party? Will Huhne be given a job as Europe minister working for the "skinhead" foreign secretary, William Hague? It does seem a bit of stretch. Cameron says policy differences leave only a "cigarette paper" between the parties, but on the European Union the differences are substantial.
The Conservatives want less state control and greater classical liberalism. But for the Lib Dems liberalism has a different - even opposite - meaning. For instance the Conservatives believe the Human Rights Act has had perverse consequences, not least regarding respect for private property. Huhne made clear this morning that the Lib Dems would oppose its repeal by a Conservative government.
Each year the Lib Dems' conference is full of illiberal demands to ban things - this year, sexist advertising. In previous years it could have been smoking, or hunting, or giving goldfish as prizes at fairs. The Lib Dem MP David Laws has lamented this "nanny state liberalism".
So a coalition sounds implausible. More likely is that the Lib Dems would allow a minority Conservative government to remain in office for a while rather than trying to force another general election straight away. For instance, I doubt the Lib Dems would seek to defeat a Conservative budget - even with the inevitable sharp cuts in public spending. Indeed the proposals of Vince Cable, their Treasury spokesman (published by the thinktank Reform) suggest that the Lib Dems could well be urging the Tories to go further in certain respects. There might not be enough common ground to allow a full-scale romance between the Tories and the Lib Dems in the next parliament. But some of the bickering might give way to flirting.