Despite the rifts, the Coalition will stagger on until the election. But can you imagine Cameron and Clegg reunited in the rose garden?

There are Tory MPs aching for a brief period of minority government

 

Share

The two parties in the Coalition row noisily. The noise is more significant than the substance of the arguments. The latest eruption is between Michael Gove and senior Liberal Democrats, but listen to Tory MPs, and the Education Secretary is by no means alone in his disdain for… who/what?

Belatedly the Liberal Democrats fight back. They have no choice, as they struggle to avoid a catastrophic outcome in this month’s elections. With Ukip breathing down their necks, the Conservatives are likewise compelled to stress how different they are from their partners in government. From free schools to crime and, of course, Europe, the electoral pressures oblige the two governing parties to show how much they disagree with each other.

In recent days I have spoken to senior figures from all three main parties, and they all contemplate the possibility of a break-up of the Coalition before the election next year. A member of the Shadow Cabinet suggests that the TV debates will be the trigger.

David Cameron has made clear that he wants some or all of the televised events to take place before the campaign gets under way, rightly arguing that the last ones sucked the life out of the contest, as well as his hope of securing an overall majority. If the debates are staged earlier, some in Labour predict that the Coalition will end this autumn, on the basis that it would be unsustainable for Cameron and Clegg to debate on TV as PM and Deputy PM.

Meanwhile, some Liberal Democrats assume that a slaughter in this month’s elections will lead to fresh calls for an end to the Coalition so that their party can assert its distinctiveness decisively. On the other side there are Tory MPs aching for a brief period of minority government.

In spite of these hopes and arguments, an early ending will not happen. Party self-interest is too complex. Above all other considerations Nick Clegg needs to argue at the election that coalition government works in the UK. If this one breaks up prematurely in a mood of mutual animosity, his already limited arsenal of arguments in favour of coalition disappears completely. The claim “Coalition works”, as he strides out early from the current one, will strike yet another discordant note, as difficult to explain as his opposition to tuition fees at the last election.

For Cameron to lead a minority government for a few months would be a nightmare, at a time when he needs to appear at his most authoritative. Both sides will cling on until the end. They have agreed a Queen’s Speech over which they can unite on the few occasions when Parliament sits between now and the election.

But the public tensions will have one very important long-term consequence. They make it impossible for another Con/Lib Dem coalition to form after the next election. Governing is partly dependent on a sense of unity and purpose. The early energetic phase of the Coalition, although leading to some ill thought-through policy-making, had both. All governments suffer from fuming divisions, but this one is unique in that it is now in the interests of the governing parties to highlight the tensions rather than suppress them. Acts of public hostility sap a political project of life in a way that private divisions do not.

Gove, an early enthusiast for the Coalition and one of those who wondered whether the partnership would lead to a permanent realignment on the right, clashes with senior Lib Dems over so-called free schools. He is one of the heroes of the right-wing media, and in much of his party, for the depth of his ideological convictions. It is impossible to imagine another five years of Gove constrained by Lib Dems, even if his convictions are transferred to another department. The same applies to a range of Tory ministers on the radical right.

On the other side Clegg told Paddy Ashdown in 2010 that he thought the Tory party had changed under Cameron’s leadership. Ashdown explained to me recently in a BBC interview that they both realise Clegg’s verdict on the Tories then was too generous, while still passionately defending the decision to join the Coalition. Again the public nature of Ashdown’s observation is significant.

A second Con/Lib coalition would seem like an act of dishonesty rather than a sincere attempt to respond to the voters’ indecision. What would Cameron and Clegg say when they held a joint press conference a few days after the next election? How could they declare their readiness to work together for another five years when their parties had disagreed so loudly for the previous 12 months?

One consequence of fixed-term parliaments is that at the beginning the course looks intimidatingly long, like the start of a marathon. These two parties will run raggedly together towards the finishing line. They will be in no state to start a second marathon after the election.

Twitter: @steverichards14

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
 

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor