Nick Clegg fends off coalition rift reports

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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was today forced to fend off reports of rifts within the coalition amid fresh disclosures that Liberal Democrat ministers had privately criticised coalition policies.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, Business Minister Ed Davey and Pensions Minister Steve Webb were caught on tape by undercover reporters from the Daily Telegraph speaking out against a range of Government positions.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said their comments had exposed the "sham" of coalition politics, with Lib Dem ministers saying one thing in public and something very different in private.

The latest revelations came after Business Secretary Vince Cable was yesterday humiliatingly stripped of his responsibilities for the media after he claimed to have "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

Mr Clegg said that Mr Cable's comments had been "very unfortunate" but insisted that the matter had been dealt with.

"I think now Vince and the Government can move on and that is the end of it," he told reporters as he left his London home.

He also sought to play down the comments by his fellow Lib Dem ministers who criticised the decisions to scrap child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers, cut housing housing benefit and put up university tuition fees.

"I don't think we should be surprised about the reports of what other ministers have said - that there are differences of opinion in a coalition, as there are indeed in all governments," Mr Clegg said.

"The most important thing is that we get on and work together in the coalition Government to fix the mess that we have inherited from Labour. That is what people expect from us and that's exactly what we are doing."

Mr Miliband, however, said that it was clear that "the cracks are starting to widen" in the coalition ranks.

"These are decisions of a Conservative-led Government propped up by Liberal Democrat passengers. Passengers not in the front seat, not even in the back seat of the car, but passengers who have got themselves locked in the boot," he said.

There were signs of unease within the Tory ranks at the latest criticisms from Lib Dem ministers, with some senior Conservatives complaining that Mr Cable had only kept his job for the sake of coalition unity.

John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said that Mr Cable would "almost certainly" have been sacked if he was a Tory minister.

"I'm not happy, but nevertheless I accept that in a coalition we have to do things to keep our partners in the coalition content," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"Equally, it's quite plain that Vince Cable is the second most important Liberal member of the coalition. We have already lost one leading Liberal minister and the feeling was we cannot afford to lose another."

Mr Cable's responsibilities for media regulation have passed to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who will now have to arbitrate on the bid by Mr Murdoch's News Corp to take a majority stake in the broadcaster, BSkyB.

Labour said that they would be writing to Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, seeking assurances that Mr Hunt was a "fit and proper person" to handle the case after he reportedly said that the bid did not represent a "substantial change".

Mr Miliband said: "I think it is right that we as the Opposition seek reassurance from Gus O'Donnell that he believes that nothing that Jeremy Hunt has said has prejudiced him."

In the latest Daily Telegraph disclosures, Mr Moore was quoted as describing the increase in tuition fees as "the biggest, ugliest, most horrific thing in all of this... a car crash, a train wreck".

He told the reporters, who were posing as constituents: "I signed a pledge that promised not to do this. I've just done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed. I've had to break a pledge and very, very publicly."

Mr Webb expressed "worries" about the child benefit cut which will hit couples where one partner earns just over the £42,000 higher-rate threshold but not those with two partners earning just below that level.

"I have written to the Treasury about this and, to be honest, the answer I got back wasn't good enough," he said.

Mr Davey said the change had come "out of the blue" at the Conservative Party conference and could have been done in "a rather fairer way" if there had been more consultation.

"I had no knowledge of it and suddenly they announced it and I have to say I was as shocked as everyone else," he said.

"I mean, I'm going to lose about £1,000 a year. And I was, frankly, gobsmacked when it came."

Mr Davey said that plans to limit housing benefit would hit some of the poorest in society.

"Their housing benefit cuts are going to mean in my view, if they go through, that some people who are on the breadline will be put below the breadline. And that's just deeply unacceptable," he said.

Mr Moore was also quoted as saying the coalition had "marginalised" the Conservative right wing, which, he said, "hate us with a passion - and I can't say it's unreciprocated".

Insisting that Lib Dem ministers "remain passionately Liberal Democrat", the Scottish Secretary said some Conservative ministers were "on a different planet" and he and Defence Secretary Liam Fox "probably couldn't stay in the same situation for very long" if they were discussing a wide range of policies.

Senior Tory MP Christopher Chope, the secretary of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, accused Lib Dem ministers of undermining the Government and said they should quit if they could not support its policies.

"What seems to be happening now is that Vince Cable and perhaps some other Liberal Democrat ministers want to be having it both ways," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

"They want to be able to support the Government for the sake of keeping the Liberal Democrats in Government and keeping their own ministerial cars, but then they want to be able to say to their supporters outside 'Don't worry, I wasn't in support of that at all, I am rather against it.'

"You can't carry on like that as a minister because you are effectively undermining your own Government."

He said Mr Cable should have been sacked for his comments, and suggested that the coalition would be better off replacing him with David Laws, the Lib Dem former Treasury chief secretary forced to quit over his expenses.

"The question is how much longer can the coalition put up with having him as a lame duck. Perhaps the answer is that they are waiting to see when they can bring back Mr Laws," he said.

"When we get into the new year, the Prime Minister will have to assess whether propping up the Liberal Democrats is in the long-term best interests of the Conservative Party and the country.

"Sometimes it can be more damaging to hang on to somebody, because it's a sign of weakness, rather than take the robust line and say the man's got to go."