British politics is known for its name-calling and point-scoring rather than adult debate, and few sane voters find the bearpit of Prime Minister’s Question Time very edifying. But since no party won the election, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have tried to do the mature thing, with neither getting all of what they want because the voters didn’t give either party absolute power. The voters don’t matter, though, to Tory Boy Tim Montgomerie, who today screams and screams until he’s sick that With every passing day the Liberal Democrats are dragging the Coalition further away from the Conservative manifesto. Well, gosh. Who’d have thought?
Opinion polls always say that voters want politicians to put aside their differences and work together. Since opinion polls also show the Lib Dem vote share plummeting ever since we did exactly that, we’ve had to get used to the fact that voters can have it both ways and we just have to sit back and take it.
Voters have the power over parties, and that’s how it should be, even when they want completely contradictory things: when you’re in government, though, you have to face up to reality. And perhaps the harshest realities are for Tories like Tim Montgomerie, whose childish sense of entitlement screams from every line as he complains that “it’s been the Liberal Democrats who are increasingly flexing their 9%-sized muscles.” It’s true, of course, that the Liberal Democrats only won 9% of the MPs last year and the Tories 47% of them – though we might point out that the voters gave us 23% of the vote, just under a quarter, and the Tories 36%, just over a third.
Those of you with finer mathematical skills than Mr Montgomerie will have spotted that all four of those percentages have something in common. Can you see it, children? Yes – they’re all under 50%. Obviously, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives disagree on what democracy means: we think power should need support from a majority of the voters, while the Tories think it doesn’t matter if two-thirds of people vote against you, as long as you get the bums on the green seats. But the Conservatives didn’t even get that.
So every time you hear a Tory bleat how unfair it is that they don’t get to do everything they want, remember that that’s because the Tories failed not just the piffling test of whether people actually voted for them, but their own test of Parliamentary majority. Claiming the Lib Dems are cheating them of all their toys is a blue herring: the likes of Mr Montgomerie are actually complaining that the voters didn’t give them their rightful power. We didn’t win the election either, so we’ve had to compromise on a lot of what we wanted to do, and some of it’s been horrible. But what a relief that the Tories have had to do just the same.
Compare the two parties: many Lib Dems are depressed, because we’re used to being in opposition and hate having to agree with some of the nasty Tory policies as the price of getting 75% of our own manifesto through. But the Tories expected to be in power, so they’re angry that the voters put a brake on their birthright. And Mr Montgomerie’s childish refusal to compromise with reality are the authentic howls of that anger.
The main part of Tim Montgomerie’s article on Conservative Home today is a top ten of Lib Dem perfidy and Tory impotence, snarling out such gems as “At every turn the Lib Dems have frustrated Damian Green and Theresa May’s efforts,” “Thwarting of the NHS reforms” and stopping the Tories telling everyone how to boss people around in their private lives, all of which should reassure many Lib Dems. If the Conservatives are that unhappy with how much we’ve stopped them doing, it’s worth the price, isn’t it? Here’s a selection:
(1) Human rights laws: We have Nick Clegg in The Guardian arguing that the human rights laws are essentially sound: “I will refuse to let human rights laws be weakened”. Cameron’s promise to Sunday Express readers looks impossible for him to meet.
A tricky choice, isn’t it? You have to pity poor Mr Cameron as he looks into his shaving mirror. ‘Treaty obligations drafted under Winston Churchill, British laws, basic freedoms… Or something my spin-doctor said to the Sunday Express for me? Which should I choose? Decisions, decisions.’ Fortunately, the Lib Dems and saner Tories like Ken Clarke – who Mr Cameron, you’ll remember, brought into his team to appeal to the voters despite the shrieking opposition of the likes of Mr Montgomerie – are in government to help Mr Cameron realise where the balance lies. And Mr Cameron needs it. He wants to rip up British human rights while telling other countries they need to improve theirs.
Tories like Tim Montgomerie always say one thing in one place and something different in another, but the Deputy Prime Minister is more mature and more consistent. What was the line he took in The Guardian that so infuriated Mr Montgomerie? “Human beings need human rights – in Britain as well as Libya”. It would take a child of six not to see that you can’t run foreign relations by ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. Which is why I was also pleased to see Nick on TV yesterday saying that of course the government won’t be banning social media the way dictatorships do (and please ignore the idiot next to me in Number 10’s knee-jerk application for membership of the Chinese Communist Party, he was too polite to add).
(4) Green policies. Certainly if George Osborne had had his way the climate change measures announced by Chris Huhne would be a lot less costly to businesses. Reducing Britain’s carbon footprint is the lowest priority of the new generation of Conservative MPs but the arithmetic of the Coalition has tipped the balance in favour of unilateral action on global warming. Huhne may be unpopular with Tory activists but I’d suggest he was one of the government’s most effective ministers.
The truth of Mr Montgomerie’s position, of course, is that he’s an enemy not just of the Lib Dems, but of Mr Cameron. Mr Montgomerie would have been a very vocal critic of a Tory majority government on Mr Cameron’s programme; when he doesn’t even get that much – because, remember, the voters didn’t give it – he’s apoplectic. He may complain about Lib Dems moving the government away from the Conservative Manifesto, but on this issue it’s Mr Montgomerie and his far right coterie who want to ditch pre-election promises from both parties. It was Mr Cameron’s moving the Tories in a less mouth-foamingly hard right direction that both encouraged enough voters to back him that he sufficient MPs to offer a coalition rather than being an absolute loser, and allowed enough common ground for the Lib Dems to form that coalition. And the earliest and most visible sign of that move was Mr Cameron’s commitment to greening the Conservatives. Remember “Vote Blue, Go Green”? “Hug a Huskie”? Even the redesigned “Tory Tree” Party logo?
So when Mr Montgomerie attacks the Liberal Democrats, while admitting through gritted teeth how effective Chris Huhne is, and when he talks up the Chancellor’s anti-green agenda but pointedly fails to mention the Prime Minister, he’s in the hot air majority of the Conservative Party and poor David Cameron is isolated. With the Liberal Democrats, this government’s becoming the greenest Britain’s ever seen; without us, ironically, it’s clear that Mr Cameron’s biggest single commitment would have been subject to a putsch from his own side.
But perhaps the most telling items in Mr Montgomerie’s countdown are numbers 5 and 6, “Opposition to growth measures” and “Even loading of the public spending cuts”. It takes a remarkable mixture of chutzpah, self-unawareness and economic illiteracy to push those two points together, but he did it; it’s difficult to imagine a more anti-growth policy than plummeting into every single spending cut on day one, with no chance to prepare for it. And he’s quite blatant about why he wanted that, too – not for the economy, but for the Conservative Party:
It also means politically tricky cuts as deep as year one will be necessary in the run up to the election.
Well, boo hoo. The Coalition is in power when the economy’s been tanked, and thanks to that Coalition, the government’s doing the responsible thing instead of only worrying about Tory election prospects. Continuing his onslaught against green measures, they’re Mr Montgomerie’s main example of being “anti-growth”; nope, the whole point of Green Investment Bank is to build the economy sustainably. And Mr Montgomerie’s top ten also rails against the Lib Dems stopping the Tories blocking immigration – when as all the business lobbies point out, slashing immigration is another stupidly anti-growth measure.
The biggest giveaway of the difference between a Conservative-only government and the Coalition, though, comes when Mr Montgomerie attacks the Lib Dems’ raising Capital Gains Tax as “anti-growth”. Well, where do I start? Seriously; he thinks rewarding lazy slackers for raking in wealth they haven’t earned should be the economic priority. As part of their ‘cosying up to the rich’ agenda, the previous Labour Government had slashed CGT to well below income tax, so that the very rich could dodge tax by plonking their wealth into property. Labour also doubled income tax on the very poorest. I wrote before the election about the big difference between Lib Dem and Tory tax cuts, and the way Mr Montgomerie completely ignores the Coalition’s big tax cut shows that he knows the difference, too. At the General Election, the Lib Dems’ top priority was tax cuts for low and middle earners, with increased taxes on the rich to pay for them. The Tories’ top tax priority was to cut inheritance tax for double millionaires. Never mind fairness; guess which would do more to stimulate economic growth?
The Liberal Democrats insisted in part on raising Capital Gains Tax because it simply wasn’t fair that those with a great deal of money could use lower CGT rates to dodge tax that that everyone else has to pay. But the reason that more economically sane Conservatives in the Coalition agreed to that was that the money from that CGT rise went into paying for the big raise in income tax thresholds, which cuts taxes for low and middle earners. Put more money into the hands of people on low and middle incomes, and they spend it; if you’re very rich, you can afford to save it. One of the things I’m proudest of the Coalition for doing – even if it doesn’t go nearly as far as it would were the Lib Dems in majority government – is starting to raise taxes on unearned wealth and give the money back to people who earn it. But Mr Montgomerie doesn’t even seem to notice that tax cut, and is furious at raising the money to pay for it. I’m grown up enough in my politics to accept that Tories don’t all just hate the poor, but Mr Montgomerie does a striking impression of it.
When Liberal Democrats dreamed of being in power, it wasn’t with the economy trolleyed by Labour, nor with having to accept much of what the Tories want to do. But that’s the limited power the voters gave us, and we’re grown up enough to accept it. We’re getting just 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto implemented – yes, I’d rather it was 100%, but when for the last 90 years of greater purity it’s been 0%, being in partial power is a start. And while being in power just to block the Tories wouldn’t be enough, when you read how upset that makes Mr Montgomerie, it cheers you up, doesn’t it? Thank you, Tim!
Conrad Russell used to point out that you could trace back our party’s history to the Seventeenth Century, and that the founding principle on which early Liberals came together was control of arbitrary power. Just as there were proto-Liberals back then, there were proto-Tories, too. They were the ones who wanted the arbitrary power. Controlling excessive power isn’t the sexiest of slogans to boast about, but it’s still at the heart of Liberalism. Today, it’s an important part of what we’re doing in Coalition. Both sides from the Seventeenth Century would recognise it. So do Tim Montgomerie and all the other Tories with their sense of entitlement to absolute power without the votes to support it.
That’s why they’re so angry with us, and that’s why we should carry on.