The atmosphere around the Cabinet table has become more tribal since last month’s reshuffle. The departure of the veteran Conservative Kenneth Clarke, dubbed the “sixth Liberal Democrat in the Cabinet”, and David Willetts, the Universities Minister who worked closely with his Lib Dem departmental boss Vince Cable, is much regretted by the Lib Dems.
The new Tories now present, who include Matthew Hancock and Elizabeth Truss, are said to “roll their eyes” when Lib Dem ministers pipe up. Similarly, a hyperactive Downing Street does its best to prevent Lib Dems getting any credit for the Coalition’s achievements. Cable was barred from announcing a milestone on Wednesday – the 200th start-up loan for entrepreneurs from a £100m government fund. David Cameron nicked that one.
A civil servant at the heart of government told me: “The Conservatives are treating the Lib Dems as if they are not there.”
The Lib Dems sniff a change in the air but insist it is still Coalition business as usual. Yet some Whitehall officials see the new phase as an unofficial dry run for what could happen after next May’s general election.
Allies of Cameron are putting it abou that, if the Tories are the largest party without an overall majority, they would run a minority government rather than offer Nick Clegg a second coalition. That would mean no Lib Dem ministers. Instead, the third party might be offered a “confidence and supply” deal in which it supported the Tory administration in key Commons votes.
The Tories’ hardening attitude is partly intended to keep their backbenchers calm. Many hate the Coalition and Cameron has promised his MPs the right to approve a second one. At least 100 Tory MPs could oppose another full-scale deal in principle; that could turn into a majority, depending on the agreement on offer after post-election horse-trading with the Lib Dems.
Of course, it suits both the Tories and Labour to talk tough in the nine months before the election. In public, it looks weak and lacking confidence to contemplate not winning an overall majority, even though another hung parliament remains the most likely outcome.
Close allies of Ed Miliband also send signals that they would not offer the Lib Dems a full-scale coalition. At first glance, this looks odd since Labour and the Lib Dems have much more common ground on policy than Clegg’s party and the Tories.
To name only some: Europe; a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2m; relaxing borrowing controls on housebuilding; no unqualified teachers in schools; extending free school meals; devolving power to local government; keeping the Human Rights Act; scrapping the winter fuel allowance for better-off pensioners; withdrawing the Tories’ tax breaks for married couples and giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds.
“The overlap is almost embarrassing,” one Labour adviser admitted. “If there was a hung parliament, our negotiating teams could meet for breakfast and have a coalition agreement by lunch.”
Maybe. But what would be the mission statement of a Lib-Lab coalition, apart from getting their bums on Cabinet seats and keeping the Tories out? Keeping us in Europe? Tricky, as the two parties are not where the public is – and would deny them a referendum. Rescuing the NHS? Possibly, but the Tories will work overtime to stave off the inevitable financial crisis until after the election. Ensuring a “fair recovery”? But Clegg says he’s already doing that in partnership with the Tories.
In 2010, the Lib-Con coalition had a purpose: the national emergency of clearing the deficit (which the two parties neatly claimed was left by the other one). And although the crisis has eased and the economy is growing, some senior Lib Dems believe that “finishing the job” might yet provide the basis of a continuing partnership with the Tories – if the parliamentary numbers add up.
However, Clegg would need the formal backing of his MPs and party members for a deal. While he might be prepared to do another one with the Tories, some Lib Dem ministers believe party members would be wary of another coalition. One said: “They might buy a deal with Labour, but I doubt they would go with the Tories again.”
Clegg is adamant that he would settle for nothing less than a full coalition. He believes a “confidence and supply” arrangement would see the Lib Dems get all the blame for propping up a minority government without any influence over its policies. He had a foretaste of it last month when the Tories decided to rush through an emergency Bill on data retention. The Lib Dems had a gun to their head and 48 hours to say yes or no. They have no intention of working like that after the election.
In the run-up to next May, we can expect both the Tories and Labour to be very sniffy about the prospect of a coalition with the Lib Dems. Yet wiser heads may prevail if there is a hung parliament.
Whatever you think of the current Coalition, its Commons majority of 80 has provided stability for the country at a critical time. Would Cameron and Miliband really rather be at the mercy of a handful of stroppy MPs on the right and left of their respective parties? If it came to the crunch, I doubt it.
Voters feel the grass is Greener on the other side
Below the radar, the Green Party is on the march again. On the right, Ukip gets tons of media coverage as it hoovers up protest votes. Virtually without publicity, the Greens woo left-of-centre voters who cannot stomach Ukip and feel they have lost a natural home in the Liberal Democrats.
The proportion of Lib Dem voters in 2010 now backing the Greens has risen from 6 to 10 per cent since April last year. In our ComRes survey this week, the Greens were up two points on last month to 7 per cent, only one point behind Nick Clegg’s party. The Greens cheekily trumpet that they have three times as many MEPs as the Lib Dems after the May elections – three against one. Some 1.2 million people voted Green.
They won’t admit it, but both Labour and the Lib Dems are getting a bit jumpy about the Green peril. “It’s not about the environment,” a Labour insider said. “It’s a protest vote.” Yet Labour is to target the Green vote in London and Norwich.
And the Lib Dems plan a manifesto commitment to plant 3.5 million trees if they remain in power after the election. Purely coincidental at a time when Green shoots are emerging.