Norman Baker MP: Chasing a political cul-de-sac

MP Norman Baker

MP Norman Baker

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It is now less than two years to the next General Election, when every party will want to maximise the number of seats it wins and the chance of being in government post 2015. If I make what must seem a blindingly obvious statement it is because the Conservative Party appears to be pursuing precisely the opposite strategy.

I do not wish to be discourteous, but I seriously wonder if some in the party in recent weeks have taken leave of their senses, electorally speaking. By 2015, it will have been 23 years since the Tories last won a General Election. In the intervening years, successive leaders – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard - offered up to the voters a menu of policies that may have pleased the grassroots of their party but which hit a glass ceiling with the voters, and one well below the magic figure of 330 that provides a majority of one. There then followed what seemed to be a determined effort by David Cameron and his circle to detoxify the image of the Tories as what Theresa May called the “nasty party”. Hoodies were hugged, or was it huskies?

Either way, it seemed the strategy was working. At the last election, the Tories won 311 seats, the most since 1992. Yet I must say many Tory MPs seem extraordinarily ungrateful to the Prime Minister for getting them from a long way behind to at least within sight of the winning post.

The root problem is this: many in the Tory want their party to move some distance to the right, and at the same time to win an absolute majority. All the evidence is you can have one or the other but not both. The public simply won’t vote for it.

David Cameron was surely right, when Opposition Leader, to warn his party not to keep “banging on about Europe”, yet that is precisely what they are now doing, and in the process worrying a great deal of British business who understand the importance of the EU for the economy of our country.

I observe with a detached sense of incomprehension how otherwise sensible Tory MPs can turn into political werewolves when the Europe moon is full, when raw emotion replaces logic and pragmatism. Chasing UKIP votes may feel comfortable for the Tories, but it is a chase that concludes in a cul-de-sac.

I note that those Tories keenest to move to the right are also those most hostile to the idea of a coalition with the Lib Dems. The irony, of course, is that by moving away from the centre, they make an outright Tory victory much less likely and another hung parliament more likely. By actively trying to dispose of the Lib Dems, they actually strengthen our position.

You might ask why this concerns me. After all, a Tory party lurching to the right, and an insipid Labour Party moving to the left, leaves the valuable centre to the Lib Dems to champion – the place where most voters feel comfortable – and, with the voters rejecting extremes, makes another hung parliament a good bet. As things stand, the party with the best chance of being in government after 2015 is the Lib Dems.

Yet it does concern me. Britain has been going through a difficult and challenging financial time, and we all know it is not over yet. This coalition government to date has been a strong one, able and prepared to take the difficult decisions to get Britain back on its feet.

That need will continue after 2015.

It is also important for Lib Dems that we have a government that respects civil liberties, is fair to those on lower incomes, and which recognises the importance of protecting our environment.

If 2015 produces a hung parliament, voters will want a government that avoids extremism and parties that will be able to work together in the national interest. That is a lesson that those who want the Conservative Party to ride off to the horizon on the right - or those that encourage Labour to head off in the opposite direction - would do well to remember. The Liberal Democrats will be staying on the centre ground, and that is where the next government will come from.