Two years ago, Mark Oaten - then a rising star in the Liberal Democrats - told a leading Conservative that his party's generation was hungry for power and would go out and seek it. He had just published The Orange Book with his political soulmate David Laws, and was taken aback by the opprobrium from Left-of-centre Liberal Democrats. It was at that point that some of the Orange Bookers started to think long term; several found the prospect of 20 years on the Lib Dem benches a pretty soul-destroying prospect and their policy positions on many issues - tax, welfare reform and public services - were not poles apart from those adopted by liberal Conservatives.
Oaten came very close to defecting to the Conservatives in the autumn of 2005. As Lib Dem home affairs spokesman he was frustrated by the party's opposition to his tougher approach on crime, and, in particular, terrorism: but the Tories were choosing a leader and Oaten's bargaining position was weak, so he stayed put. David Cameron nearly claimed his first scalp two months into his leadership. Rumours had been swirling around Westminster of an imminent Lib Dem defection. I wrote on my blog that David Laws was about to jump ship. It was then that I received a phone call from someone close to the Cameron set who asked if I could tone it down a little as things were "at a delicate stage".
If Laws is to be believed, George Osborne's attempt to lure him across - then, or later - was less a political seduction than a "wham bam, thank you ma'am". Laws has been telling Tory MPs this week that Osborne asked abruptly, without any political foreplay, whether he wanted to defect or not. He was so taken aback that he spluttered "not".
In a GMTV interview at the weekend, Osborne confirmed that he had held discussions with Laws and was also talking to Labour MPs. The first rule of political defections is that you not only keep any discussions secret from your own side, you don't talk about them on television either. Afterwards, Osborne knew he had made a mistake, but the damage had been done.
The Tories and Lib Dems are becoming allies of convenience on issues where they have common ground. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems Home Affairs Spokesman and leader-in-waiting, has been astonished at how similar his views are to those of David Davis, whom he had previously regarded as a hardline Right-winger. Cameron confidante Ed Vaizey has been deputed to cosy up to the Lib Dems. His recent trip to the Arctic Circle with Nick Clegg may not have resulted in a defection, but eight hours a night in an igloo can hardly have failed to bring them closer.
The Cameron inner circle ought to remember the Second World War maxim: careless Talk Costs Lives," except they should replace the "lives" with "defections".
UPDATE: More councillors defect to Tories HERE.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Careless Talk Costs Defections
I have another column in the Telegraph today, which you can read in full HERE. This is an excerpt...