Norman Baker’s departure underlines Coalition’s divergence

"The Lib Dems are like a plane with a fuel tank full of holes"

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The Independent Online

The spectacular resignation of Norman Baker marks the third phase of the Coalition’s life. We should not be surprised. The three phases were mapped out soon after it was formed in 2010 by Richard Reeves, then Nick Clegg’s director of strategy.

The first phase was to show that “coalition works”, so the Liberal Democrats stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Conservatives on cutting the deficit. Phase two would be “differentiation” to show voters the Lib Dems had not become Tories.

The third phase would be a natural “divergence” before the 2015 general election. Mr Baker’s decision to quit was personal rather than part of a master plan. But the public squabble between the two Coalition parties yesterday showed that divergence is well and truly under way.

Unusually, it was a political row that left everyone happy. The Lib Dems can claim they are fighting hard for “liberal values” against the “nasty” Tories.

But Lib Dem attacks on Theresa May for not being “Coalition-friendly” will do her no harm among the Conservative MPs whose support she will one day seek in a party leadership contest. Many of them hate the Coalition, not least because it has blighted their own promotion prospects.

Yesterday a survey of Tory members by the ConservativeHome website showed that Ms May is their favoured next leader. She was backed by 24 per cent, with 22 per cent supporting Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, 11 per cent for Michael Gove, the Government Chief Whip, and 10 per cent for George Osborne, the Chancellor.

Senior Tories saw Mr Baker’s move as an act of desperation by a party stuck in single figures in the opinion polls. One Cameron ally said: “The Lib Dems are like a plane with a fuel tank full of holes. They know it will run out of fuel next May. They are pressing all the buttons in a panic but nothing works.”

Mr Clegg and other senior Lib Dems did not join Mr Baker in putting the boot into Ms May yesterday. They still need to show that “coalition works” to head off inevitable warnings by the Tories and their newspaper allies that another hung parliament would be bad for the country. The claim was made in 2010 but the voters decided otherwise, and may well do so again next May.

The end of the Coalition has often been predicted by people who want it to fail but it has proved remarkably resilient. It was built to last until next May and will do so. Mr Baker’s move does not signal the end of the Coalition but marks the beginning of the end.

Happy families? Coalition couples

George Osborne and Danny Alexander (Treasury)

Mr Alexander joined the Treasury only after the Tories’ favourite Lib Dem, David Laws, resigned over an expenses scandal. The Chancellor probably thought he would be too left-wing to fit in well, but there has never been any sign of disagreement between them. This makes Mr Alexander a major player.

Iain Duncan Smith and  Steve Webb (Department  for Work and Pensions)

On the face of it, a recipe for disaster as the right-wing Tory and left-leaning Lib Dem were thrown together in a politically sensitive department. The reverse has proved to be true. Mr Duncan Smith gave his cerebral deputy wide authority to develop pensions reforms.

Ed Davey and John Hayes (Department for Energy  and Climate Change)

Mr Hayes has worked under two Lib Dem secretaries of state. His short spell at DECC was marked by embarrassing public clashes, culminating in Mr Davey taking legal advice when he demanded an end to wind farms “peppering” the countryside. Mr Hayes was reshuffled after seven months.

Vince Cable and David  Willetts (Department for  Business Innovation and Skills)

Mr Cable is the cabinet  minister the Tories trust the least. Nick Clegg is no fan either. But David Willetts, a liberal Tory, had an excellent rapport with his Lib Dem boss. That did him no good. He lost his job, although his replacement, Greg Clark, is also a relatively moderate Tory.

Michael Gove and Sarah Teather (Department for Education)

During his four years running the department, Mr Gove got on better with his Lib Dem colleagues, David Laws and Sarah Teather, than he did with Nick Clegg. Although Ms Teather regarded his free schools programme as a “gimmick”, she admitted: “You don’t get everything you want.” But she could not contain her fury over benefit cuts and was sacked.

Jeremy Hunt and Norman Lamb (Department for Health)

Mr Lamb was blocked from landing a post in the department by the previous Tory Secretary of State, Andrew Lansley. But he and Mr Hunt have developed one of the closest Tory-Lib Dem working relationships in Whitehall.