Inside Westminster: Divided coalition will never be the same again

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The Independent Online

Despite the hype about love-ins between David Cameron and Nick Clegg and a marriage between their two parties after the Coalition was formed a year ago, it will have an unhappy anniversary on Wednesday.

The previous day, there will be an attempt to portray the Cabinet's weekly meeting as business as usual. But the atmosphere will be chilly.

"There won't be a cake in the middle of the table with one candle on it," one minister quipped yesterday. "People might think the other party had put a bomb in it."

Only a few weeks ago, Cameron and Clegg aides wondered whether to mark the anniversary with another gay wedding-style press conference in the Downing Street garden like the one a year ago. It would look ridiculous now and the idea has been binned.

Instead, the Prime Minister and his deputy will probably make a joint visit designed to show they are focused on economic growth.

The Coalition will continue, but the scars of the bitter AV referendum campaign will remain on Mr Clegg's battered body.

In the council elections, the Liberal Democrats were again cast in the role of the Tories' human shields while, remarkably, the Teflon-like Mr Cameron escaped without a scratch. That only made Mr Clegg's task of explaining the meltdown to his party much harder.

Although one man was always going to be the referendum loser, the No camp's personal attacks on Mr Clegg will change the atmospherics and the workings of the Coalition permanently.

The Liberal Democrat leader has no option but to bow to the likes of Vince Cable and Chris Huhne, who have been straining at the leash to assert the party's separate identity from the Tories.

With hindsight, Mr Clegg's allies admitted yesterday, the "differentiation strategy" should have begun earlier. From now on, he and his party will air their differences with the Tories in public more often. The Dave and Nick love-fest was always a caricature and their relationship was always more business-like than personal. But Mr Clegg's reluctance to do the dirty washing in public meant that the image stuck.

Can the Coalition last until 2015 if the Liberal Democrats drive a harder bargain? At first glance, it looks difficult.

Despite the bitterness in the air as the anniversary approaches, senior figures in both parties believe their shared interest in serving a full five-year term remains.

The Tories need time to clear the deficit and offer the prospect of better times ahead. Mr Clegg needs to show that "coalition works" for a parliament, and hopes to win some respect for administering the economic medicine.

It will be harder than he thinks; his "nightmare Thursday" suggests his party may be doomed to get the blame but never the credit.

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