Get a sense of humour: the Tories and Coalition, Spectator, 5 October 2013

Like so many pundits before me, I had earnestly hoped never to begin a piece on coalitions by quoting Disraeli.  But since I was asked by Bright Blue and the Electoral Reform Society to join Mrs Bone’s husband, as well as Ms Hardman and Mr Oborne of this parish, on the Tory fringe in Manchester to discuss whether the country would ever love coalitions, it has sadly proved unavoidable.  I can only apologise.

My answer to the question, in case you were interested, was that England might not learn to love coalitions but that, like Scotland and Wales before it, it has very quickly come to accept them and that, rather than being grudging, that acceptance was phlegmatic – ‘it is what it is’, ‘we are where we are’, etc., etc.

Fans of medieval medicine (and who isn’t?) will recognise in that rather distasteful term one of the four humours that our forebears believed determined personality, the others being (needless to say, I’m sure) sanguine, melancholic and choleric.

It’s actually the latter that I’m most interested in because it might explain why there is one section of society whose refusal to accept what has happens borders on denial and delusion.  I am talking here about large parts of the parliamentary Conservative Party and many (but by no means all or even most) grassroots members.

My scholarly training (by which I mean some dim recollections of reading The Alchemist for A-Level and a quick look at Wikipedia, first resort of the academic scoundrel) tells me that those of a choleric disposition are suffering from ‘an excess of yellow bile’ (do the Lib Dems really hate you so much?), are ‘fundamentally ambitious and leader-like’, and full of aggression, energy, and/or passion.’ ‘Task oriented people’ who are ‘focused on getting a job done efficiently; their motto is usually “do it now”.’  They like to take charge so ‘can become dictatorial or tyrannical.’  As a result, ‘they can quickly fall into deep depression or moodiness when failures or setbacks befall them’.

The Conservative Party’s failure to win the election and consequent need to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems was one such setback.  But its ongoing inability to grow up and get over itself is – at least to an outside observer for whom Conference’s secure zone isn’t simultaneously a comfort zone – not only a question of character but one of sheer common sense.

If you are a Tory, repeat after me.  The two-party vote is in long-term secular decline.  We are still seen by too many people as the party of the rich.  We are effectively locked out of many, sometimes densely populated parts of the country and have made barely any inroads into ethnic minority communities.  We face an electoral system that discriminates against a party which piles up votes in safe seats and a system of boundary review that takes too long to catch up with population movements out of the cities and into the suburbs.  Another hung parliament is therefore a distinct possibility.  Such an outcome may – just may – even become the new normal.

Tories could also help themselves by setting aside a couple of pervasive myths that make it doubly difficult for them to cope with the trauma.  First, with the exception of those Conservative MPs who missed out on being ministers, the only people shafted by the coalition deal were the Lib Dems: they were vegetarians negotiating with carnivores; you gave them virtually nothing either in terms of policy or portfolios; you won; they lost; get over it.

Second, there was no possibility of a Conservative minority government in 2010.  Not simply the survival but the very installation of such a government relies on other parties not voting it down – permission they will only give if they can’t see any serious alternative.  In 2010 there almost certainly was: a Lib-Lab government with anyone-but-Brown as PM supported by smaller regionalist parties who would have screwed far more out of it than they’ve been able to screw out of this one.  The same may well be true in 2015.

Fortunately, it seems, the refusal of so many Tories to accept these painful realities isn’t, in the end, as profound – or as damaging to the Party’s governing prospects – as it might first appear.  In a survey of grassroots members we conducted this summer, we found that while two thirds of them regretted David Cameron’s decision to go into coalition with Nick Clegg last time around, over three-quarters of them would do it again if that’s what it takes to hang on to Number Ten.  Character – at least as defined by medieval medicine – is not destiny after all.


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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