Marcus Johnson looks for a pact with the devil and how it revives the Liberals.
Imagine the situation – by forming a coalition government you have rescued the country from a disastrous situation – a threat to the existence of the United Kingdom has been averted – victory over the problems made immeasurably worse by an inadequate uninspired and divided previous government has been secured. But it is time for a general election. As leader of the two coalition parties you are faced with a choice – possible defeat or certain eternal damnation for one or both of you – what do you choose? Defeat would be comfortable – although its existence was threatened and much of its power removed over the last few years there is still a comfortable seat in the House of Lords for life for you if you ignore the temptations offered by what many would regard as a pact with the devil. You have done a job most people regarded as impossible and leaving your successors to deal with the huge debt, housing problems, splitting up Europe and the unstable situation in the Middle East must be tempting. So what will you do?
Well, if it was you or me we might rest on our laurels and take a dignified role as an elder statesman – but then again you or I would need burning ambition, a restless desire to dominate, and a determination to achieve power if we were to be in that position. Perhaps that is not quite what we are, and if we were we might, like Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law, decide that our duty to our country to finish the job we had really only partly completed by defeating Germany (and, of course, Austria and Turkey) came first.
Or as others might put it we were greedy for power and would do anything to retain it – even if a pact with the devil was the means.
So why, when everyone else is looking at 1914 and the acceleration of the final disintegration of the Empires which had been the dominant feature of Europe for 2000 years, am I looking at 1918? Because in 2015 David Cameron and Nick Clegg face exactly the same choice as their predecessors 96 years earlier. The conditions are not really the same – the massive slaughter, the social unrest, the violent revolutions have no echoes today, but the reality is that the possibility of a near certain victory if the current coalition goes into the election united behind a single candidate in each constituency is as real today as on 20 November 1918.
Perhaps I should remind you of what the ‘Coupon’ was. It was a letter signed by the Prime Minister and his deputy which very simply said:
“Dear Sir Eric,
We have much pleasure in recognising you as the coalition candidate for [Cambridge]. We have every hope that the electors will return you as their representative in Parliament to support the Government in the great task which lies before it.
David Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law”.
Sir Eric Geddes (later immortalised as the wielder of the famous Geddes Axe and perhaps partly responsible for the Second World War as the originator of the infamous “We will get everything out of her [Germany] that you can squeeze out of a lemon and a bit more. I will squeeze her until you can hear the pips squeak”) duly was returned for Cambridge with more than 75% of the votes. It was the same story in the rest of the country. Voters love coalitions. In 1931 the coalition candidate won 73% of the votes in Cambridge – even at the height of her considerable local popularity Anne Campbell only got to 53% of the vote in 1997.
All David Cameron and Nick Clegg need to do is:-
1) decide they want to stay one more term
2) agree a program for the next parliament
3) agree a division of ministries
4) select who gets the Coupon
And it is on this last point that the eternal damnation which surrounds Lloyd George and Bonar Law is the worry. David Cameron has a daily reminder of how the coalition was broken in the form of the ‘1922 Committee’ – which is still how the backbench Tories style their parliamentary group. The two chief whips in 1918 plotted for six months and when they issued the letter it went to only those that the Government liked – Asquith supporters need not apply – and very few Liberals without the Coupon were elected.
If they do want to stay in power our current coalition would be well advised to resist punishing those who have betrayed it. If they seek to punish those who, like Julian Huppert, removed their support when parliament refused to support government action against chemical warfare in Syria they will split both parties. Even those who, like most of the rebels, voted against sanctions on President Assad, not because they liked him but to embarrass the coalition, should get the Coupon. The only selectivity (and the trickiest bit to agree) can be constituencies without a sitting member supporting the coalition – here they are safe in asking candidates to pledge support for the coalition as the price of receiving endorsement. But today they would also need to have an objective rule which determined who was offered the Coupon in each constituency – again to avoid disputes and allegations of favouritism. I would argue that a very simple rule should be applied in all seats held by Labour and the Scottish National party. The percentage vote of the party holding the seat should be used to rank each seat they hold. The coalition parties would then each take alternative slots in the ranked seats. Any attempt to assess winnability or to trade positions would be too divisive.
So if the two leaders go for another term in this way will either or both of them survive the inevitable victory? The 1918 coalition was divided by protectionism and the liberal split was worst on the subject of the treaties governing our relationship with the other European powers. If the 2015 coalition breaks down it is likely to be because David Cameron fails to keep his rabid anti-European activists under control. In coalition there are too few jobs to bribe those who wish to be awkward and it is too easy for backbenchers to get easy applause by pandering to their extreme supporters. If this logic holds then the possibility exists that Nick Clegg would be the beneficiary – 100 years on from the effective disappearance of the Liberals as the alternative governing party he could well be accepting pro-European Tories into his Democratic Liberals and Progressive Conservative Alliance to win the 2018 election.