Allegra Stratton indulges in a fascinating spot of Kremlinology in today’s Guardian – exploring the rivalries and rifts at the heart of Nick Clegg’s team (a cabal of advisers who now insist, apparently, on being collectively referred to as ‘the palace’). Of course, the article’s all the more interesting to Demos staffers for the inclusion of a certain Richard Reeves (our much missed former Director) in any Clegg-related gossip worth its salt, but what struck me was not the titbits of information on a former comrade but the dismissiveness with which the LibDems now regard something much closer to my heart; progressive conservatism.
‘The Tories are vacating the territory of progress’ is the allegation, whilst an aide describes Steve Hilton as ‘Thatcher in a tee-shirt’. It would seem that the Liberal Democrats have confidently decided that the coalition is no longer a tug-of-war over who owns the caring, compassionate and centrist territory – that the Tories have dumped the rope altogether and slunk off to the Right in some self-mutilating sulk. As proof, these jubilant Liberals cite the response of senior Conservatives to the looting that erupted in August – describing the reaction as ‘Cameron’s Summer of Rage’.
All of which is well and good. Certainly, mass outbreaks of criminality gave us Tories pause for thought and violently reminded us of a central conviction – that culture is the force about which we most care. But does that really mean that we have ‘vacated the territory of progress’? Not in the slightest. The Conservative Party may have remembered that changing the culture of Britain – to make it more responsible, more morally certain and less equivocal – is our mission in life but just look at how we seek to turn that aspiration into reality. Banking reform, elected Police Commissioners, free schools and pupil premiums, welfare reform – these are not the extremes of politics. They are nuanced, thoughtful and progressive interventions designed to push and provoke cultural change in a conservative direction by both enshrining responsibility and cutting dependency and want. This is the centre-ground of British politics.
The differentiation sought by LibDems can only lead them to define themselves against the Conservative Party by drifting Leftwards. Fine. But the reality to which ‘the Palace’ must wake up is that the British public don’t define their centre as equidistant between Ed and Dave. They define it far to the Right of the Labour Party and, often, far to the Right of the Conservative Party. In pursuing Westminster’s cold calculation of what the centre is, the LibDems risk abandoning the British public’s view of it. That would be a rather silly mistake to make just as our third party is finally showing, through coalition with the Conservatives, that ‘competence with compassion’ is something they can just about muster.