There have been growing mutterings recently about the prospect of the Coalition becoming an outright merger between the Tories and Lib Dems sometime between now and the next general election. I don’t know how likely it is – the prospect of strong resistance from rightwing Tories who take the same view as Fraser Nelson in the article I’ve linked to above and (to a lesser extent) leftwing Lib Dems who still have a conscience makes me sceptical – but if it did happen I don’t think it would be Spectator readers and their ilk who’d really regret it. The first commenter at the bottom of Nelson’s piece writes:
Merger means the LibDems of the Orange Book persuasion becoming Conservatives, does it not? And the sandal-wearing twats will join Labour, giving them a dreadful headache. All this will be excellent news for the Greens, who will become the third party. Don’t you think, Fraser?
I’d take issue with the language, but since most socialists probably have as much contempt for sandal-wearing Lib Dems as rightwing Tories do, I realise I probably wouldn’t get much sympathy. The more glaring problem with the comment, though, is the supposition that the Greens and Labour would be the major beneficiaries of a merger between the coalition parties. I agree that those on the right of the Tory party would do badly out of it (so Nelson’s consternation is understandable), but I really don’t see how any party on the left would gain from it either.
In terms of electoral support, YouGov currently has Labour at 41%, the Tories at 39 and the Lib Dems on 9 – +12, +3 and -14 points compared to the general election in May, respectively. This suggests a pretty large chunk of left-leaning Lib Dem support has already gone to Labour – which isn’t surprising, given both the coalition’s policies and the Tories’ deftness in making the Lib Dems scapegoats for those policies. What hasn’t happened is any significant rightward erosion of Tory support, but if there was a merger it could happen.
So where would all the disillusioned Thatcherites go? Well, UKIP pretty clearly fits the bill best: economically conservative, anti-immigration, climate change-denying, big on defence, and, of course, about as Eurosceptic as you can get. And let’s not forget that it was they, not the Greens, who came fourth in terms of votes cast last May (to say nothing of coming second in the EU elections the year before). So there’s a real chance of UKIP getting a boost in support if a Conservative-Lib Dem merger goes through.
Another possibility, though (which isn’t incompatible with the first) is that the new merged party could do extremely well. It would be very easy for a party led by Cameron and Clegg to paint itself as closer to the centre ground than Labour, particularly if it had the support of the Murdoch press (and a wholly Murdoch-owned Sky News, courtesy of Jeremy Hunt). Right-leaning Lib Dem supporters would vote for the new party, while the left-leaning ones would have been lost to Labour, the Greens or disgusted apathy long before. If this happens, the main electoral losers are going to be on the left, not the right.