Magazine article The Spectator

This Referendum Could Change the Tory Party Forever

Magazine article The Spectator

This Referendum Could Change the Tory Party Forever

Article excerpt

Quietly, David Cameron is warming to Nick Clegg's proposed plans for voting reform - even though it could bind the two parties together for a decade or more. James Forsyth on a Tory gamble that dares not speak its name

On the Monday after the election, David Cameron summoned his front bench for not one but two meetings as he frantically tried to put together a government. In the second one, he asked them for their support in offering the Liberal Democrats a referendum on electoral reform. The Tory party has long stood against this. It believed that any move away from first-past-the-post would be bad for the country and for the party; that it would lead to a string of mushy centrist governments and backroom deals between politicians that shut out the electorate. But the sense of the meeting was that this referendum was a necessary evil.

How much things have changed in two months. When David Cameron and Nick Clegg walked in to the Spectator summer party together last week, they looked like brothers in arms. They seemed more relaxed in each other's company than politicians from the same party normally are.

Both were careful not to take champagne, but they had something to toast: they had just agreed that, subject to MPs' approval, the referendum on voting reform would take place next May. Strikingly, several of those around Cameron are beginning to think that it would be good for the Tory party if Clegg's side triumphed in the referendum.

There has been no official change of Tory policy. David Cameron will still campaign against Alternative Voting (AV), a system which asks voters to list candidates in order of preference. But, behind the scenes, an extraordinary change in attitude is underway. Oliver Letwin, one of Cameron's closest allies, has even been making the case for AV to people in private.

This new found interest in AV reflects a belief that British politics can be realigned with a Liberal-Conservative alliance at its centre. Rather than planning to ditch Mr Clegg at their earliest convenience, many of those closest to Cameron want the pair to walk into the sunset together.

Ever since the coalition formed, Liberal Democrats have whispered in Tory ears that they had no need to fear AV any more. That after five years of governing together, it will be natural for Liberal Democrats to put the Tories as their second choice and vice-versa. By 2015, they purred, AV could be working to both parties' advantage with the only victims being Labour. The Spectator commissioned the first opinion poll since the election to test this thesis. It found that the Lib Dems are right.

In an AV system, the MP with the fewest votes - say, Ukip - would be eliminated first and their second preference votes given to the other candidates. This process keeps going until one candidate has more than half of votes cast. In 1998, the Jenkins Commission calculated that the unspoken Lib Dem-Labour alliance would crush the Tories, giving them a sixth of the seats on a third of the votes.

Just before this year's general election, YouGov asked Lib Dem voters who their second preference vote might go to. Labour picked up far more of these votes than the Tories - 42 per cent to 27 per cent. But in a YouGov poll for The Spectator, carried out earlier this week, the figures had changed.

The Lib Dem second preferences are now splitting evenly between the two parties, meaning that Labour gains no advantage from voting reform in Labour-Tory contests. AV is, for now, no longer an anti-Tory device.

Just as importantly, our poll shows that Mr Cameron would still fail to win a majority under the existing system. Under AV, the Tories would win 309 seats - 17 short of a majority, and Labour's 273 MPs would not leave it within striking distance of power.

With this result, a Tory-Lib Dem coalition would be the only possible combination that could command a majority: a second term would have been secured for the coalition. …

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