There'll be no coupon election
Buried beneath the snow of the Christmas headlines was a fascinating political scoop for the Independent. They revealed that the Cabinet had discussed how to ‘help the Lib Dems win’ in the upcoming Oldham East by-election. The revelation is interesting but should hardly be surprising. As I pointed out in the Telegraph when the election was first announced, it would be bizarre and counter-productive for the Conservative Party to give their all to demolishing the Lib Dems in Oldham. The two parties are partners in a coalition Government, the Lib Dems are the weaker of the two and are suffering the most as a result of the arrangement; this is an election that the Tories can better afford to lose.
But it has raised once more the question of what will happen come the election proper, leading to a classic game of ‘will they, won’t they’ by the political commentariat over potential coupon elections, formal alliances or even mergers. This seasonal silliness misses the point by a mile. There is a huge difference between abdicating from the political rough-and-tumble of a by-election and effectively standing-down your party permanently. Fighting tooth and nail whilst still governing together is foolish and resonates badly with voters – it smacks of ‘Punch and Judy’ politics and it undermines joint policy even as it is being sold to the electorate. It is bad politics. Running on differing agendas for the future, on different road-maps for Britain in 2015, however, is a natural and understandable choice. It doesn’t mean trashing the last five years of co-operation because it is about setting out each party’s stall for what they want to do next. It is, in other words, a perfectly reasonable and normal way to fight a general election (albeit a likely politer tone).
The hysteria on the Conservative Right and the Lib Dem Left is likely misplaced. Their leaderships recognise that any joint-ticket would have to carry favour and agreement in the parties at large, not simply round Downing Street coffee tables. The Cabinet discussed helping the Lib Dems in Oldham because Oldham is a peculiar election that sits outside of the normal routine of the political cycle. It is exceptional. There will be no coupon election in 2015 because neither party has the stomach for a permanent marriage, but that doesn’t mean that this temporary partnership of convenience cannot last or cannot succeed.