I really welcomed the coalition, but now...

The horse-trading by the Tories and Lib Dems has been a disappointment, but what follows the election may be even worse

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The night before the coalition was formed, a senior member of the Tory team stormed back from a critical meeting with potential partners. He looked downcast, telling me he was convinced the Liberal Democrats had double-crossed them in a deal to enter government with Labour. "Nice bunch of people, your liberal friends," he said sarcastically.

Less than 24 hours later, David Cameron was clapped out of his Westminster office by staff on his way to form Britain's first post-war coalition government. Then came that rather toe-curling Rose Garden press conference with back-slapping, bad jokes and bonhomie. "We are announcing a new politics," said the Prime Minister. "Where the national interest is more important than party interest, where co-operation wins out over confrontation."

How hollow that talk of new politics now sounds in the wake of the Ukip insurgency, which taps into profound public discontent with the three main parties. Clearly, the local election results underline how Labour is drifting in the doldrums, its regressive message failing to resonate sufficiently with voters. But the ballot also highlighted how coalition has turned into a curse for both partners in government, dashing all those optimistic hopes that it might help to transform their brands.

For the Liberal Democrats, this is more obvious. Their leader quickly slipped from being spokesman for this new politics to poster boy of all that is wrong with Westminster. The party can no longer pose as outsiders, reflecting back voter concerns wherever they lie on the political spectrum. Instead, as so often seen in Europe, the smaller coalition partner is crushed at the polls; now they face the real possibility of being reduced to a rump at the next election after decades on the rise.

The Lib Dems had two core aims upon taking office: to prove that coalition politics works in this country and to demonstrate they were more than just a protest party. They deserve more credit than they get for sticking with the Tories through choppy economic waters and cuts, shored up by some unlikely personal chemistries. Not just Clegg and Cameron; who would have thought Iain Duncan Smith and the social democratic Steve Webb would have formed such a strong partnership, for all their shared Christianity?

But the public has decided it does not like coalition government. As one prominent insider put it, instead of fulfilling misty-eyed dreams of politicians working together in harmony, the voters have seen crude horse-trading conducted in public. Little wonder an Ipsos-Mori poll earlier this year revealed less than one-third of voters favoured the concept of another coalition. The more there is public feuding, the more fractious the coalition becomes closer to the election, the more this public dismay may grow.

In their panic, the Lib Dems try desperately to differentiate themselves from their coalition partners, fearful of being buried by electoral landslides. They may be right to raise issues such as the bedroom tax or green energy. Yet the ceaseless simpering and sniping can look silly, undermining public faith in mainstream politics once again, to the benefit of Ukip. The Lib Dem strategy is clearly not working. And it raises questions over whether the party has grown up in government – or, indeed, has the slightest idea what it stands for these days.

Yet coalition has been little kinder to the Conservatives. Like many others, I presumed Cameron would demonstrate his natural moderation in office, even though his overhaul of the "nasty party" had stuttered amid economic meltdown. Then, when they were forced by voters into alliance with the Lib Dems as punishment for incomplete modernisation, I assumed this would make it easier to shackle the party to the centre ground, and I supported it enthusiastically.

Instead, we saw the rise of Ukip, giving succour to some self-serving hardliners on the right who started posturing like a third party in an increasingly unruly coalition. Curiously, given their vociferous opposition to coalition, a handful still pushes an electoral pact that would serve the purposes only of a miserabilist rival. Yet already, the Tories have tacked to the right to appease them, seeming, at times, to bang on only about benefits, Europe and immigration – although in recent days, Cameron has rightly rounded on the pessimistic "politics of anger".

Since the eruption of infighting after the rejection of voting reform two years ago, the transactional nature of coalition politics has been far more visible. This corroded the cause of modernisation, with the Lib Dems disassociating themselves from harsher policies in order to look progressive, while painting Tories in the darkest possible hues. So the Conservatives are the party that cut taxes for the rich, while their partners try to bag credit for helping the working poor. "At one stage during the Beecroft report debate, it even looked like we were arguing for the abolition of maternity pay, which was just nuts," said a senior Tory figure.

Some Tories speculate that the core problem has been a chronic dearth of Liberal Democrat policies, ensuring that their partners define themselves only through opposition. Others are more damning: "I thought they were decent people of principle, unsullied by political considerations, but they turned out to be the precise opposite," said one minister. He has been left so scarred by his experiences, despite admiration for some Lib Dem colleagues, that he would prefer minority government over another coalition.

The dawn of four-party politics, the disruptive presence of Ukip, the failures of Labour and the fast-improving economy make it hard to predict the outcome of next year's general election. Clearly, there is high chance of another coalition. Yet, ironically, as another Tory minister told me, there would be only one thing worse than another post-election alliance – and that would be a small majority, leaving the Prime Minister held hostage by the headbangers.

Ian Birrell, a former speech writer for David Cameron, won the Edgar Wallace Award at the London Press Club last week

twitter.com/@ianbirrell

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