Con-Dem Nation,  Gordon MacMillan,  UK Politics

Charles Kennedy on why he refused to back Con-Dem deal

Charles Kennedy writes in the Observer today on how he feared the move by the Lib Dems to a formal coalition with the Conservatives could wreck for good plans for a progressive centre-left alliance.

Former leaders Kennedy and David Steel both abstained on the vote to back the deal, which was eventually backed by other apparent doubters including two other leaders Menzies Campbell and Paddy Ashdown.

Kennedy says he worries that history could be about to repeat itself and that the Lib Dems could be swallowed by the Tory party.

“The ghost of Joe Chamberlain may not be omnipresent as Liberal Democrats gather in his native Birmingham today, doubtless to endorse their leadership’s new coalition government with the Conservatives, but his political shadow should be just perceptible nonetheless.

“As someone who has always inclined towards reading the history book in preference to gazing into the crystal ball, I feel it is worth recalling that great statesman who split the political family and ended up as a Liberal Unionist. Several decades later and a similar trick was to lead to the emergence of the National Liberals and their subsequent assimilation within the Conservative fold. Can history repeat itself yet again?”

Kennedy says that last week’s events leading to the formal coalition “drive a strategic coach and horses” through the realignment of the centre-left” to which he and others in the Liberal tradition subscribe.

“It is hardly surprising that, for some of us at least, our political compass currently feels confused. And that really encapsulates the reasons why I felt personally unable to vote for this outcome when it was presented to Liberal Democrat parliamentarians.”

His piece in The Observer comes ahead of the grassroots Lib Dem meeting in Birmingham today where many more doubting voices are expected to be heard as the party is forced to ditch key manifesto pledges such as phasing out tuition fees and having to back a rise in VAT.

Interestingly, the paper also reports that Clegg and David Cameron spoke on the afternoon of 7 May as the last results came in after the Tory leader had already concluded that Clegg wanted to do a deal with the Tories and not Labour.

This goes against the narrative that the Lib Dem leadership is attempting to establish that it was Labour who killed a left of centre coalition and not the Lib Dems. Ashdown blamed “Labour neanderthals” and today Steel (also in the Observer: “Why we must make this coalition work) says “Labour scuppered any such project, not us”. Lib Dems are it seems (in their eyes) totally blameless.

It strikes me that some Lid Dems are repeating this narrative as rote in an effort to protect their party and convince themselves that going into coalition with the Conservatives was the right thing to do. If that narrative breaks down or is seriously called into question by large sections of the party then it could well tear the Lib Dems apart.