Andrew Grice: Has the Coalition charabanc reached a fork in the road?

Inside Westminster: Clegg has to show that coalition works. Flouncing out would undermine that

Share
Related Topics

"How long will the Coalition last?" It's the great guessing game in the Westminster village, an obsession for politicians, advisers and other inmates like me. On the face of it, the speculation is premature: we're not yet halfway through the five-year Parliament due to end in May 2015.

Strangely, some MPs seem to have forgotten they passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act last year, which requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for a general election. This would require both Conservative and Labour MPs to support an election – an unlikely prospect. So Tory threats of an early election, occasionally thrown around like crockery within the Coalition's marriage of inconvenience, are pretty empty, especially when Mr Cameron's party trails in the polls and there's no sign of the economy picking up.

It's all part of "July madness", a Westminster tradition which saw MPs depart for their summer break this week in a tetchy and fractious mood. The Tory backbench rebellion over House of Lords reform has changed the dynamics inside the Coalition and the Conservative Party.

A double unity parade, by David Cameron and Nick Clegg on Monday and George Osborne and Danny Alexander two days later, masked real tension behind the scenes. The trouble at the top — triggered by Mr Cameron's failure to deliver enough Tory support to allow Mr Clegg's Lords blueprint to progress — has trickled down, even causing grief in departments where the Coalition parties normally work well together. "The atmosphere is different," one Tory minister admitted.

More worrying for Mr Cameron is the mutiny on his own backbenches. "He has lost control of his own troops," one Tory rebel said. "For many of us, it wasn't really about the Lords. It was about him. He has lost his authority." While the election looks a safe bet for May 2015, that doesn't mean a full-scale Coalition will last until then. There is growing clamour amongst Tory MPs to move to a "confidence and supply" arrangement, under which the Liberal Democrats would not have to vote for all the Tories' policies but would back them in key votes such as the Budget and confidence motions.

The black mood of Tory MPs has affected the answers to the Coalition shelf-life question. My straw poll of Tory ministers produced a range of predictions, from ending in early 2013; the autumn party conference season of 2013 or 2014 to Christmas 2014. However, my mini-survey of Liberal Democrat ministers found them more optimistic the Coalition would last until the 2015 election or shortly before it. Perhaps that's natural: they would lose their ministerial posts under "confidence and supply". "The Lib Dem ministers love their red boxes and limos," a Tory counterpart quipped. Clegg allies insist it is not about power or perks, his party must show that "coalition works". Flouncing out early would undermine that. "Any reward for taking the tough decisions on the economy would be lost; we would look flaky," one aide said.

But staying the course, will not be easy. Although the parties agree they will diverge in the year before the election as they set out their respective stall, managing them is going to get harder for the two leaders.

The crunch issue is the next government-wide spending review. The Tories want to target the welfare budget; the Liberal Democrats' instinct is to tax the rich. There are conflicting Treasury signals about when the review will be held. That has fuelled speculation that a full-scale review will be put off until after polling day.

Under pressure from his MPs, Mr Cameron will be tempted to veer right. That might not appeal to centrist voters he needs to woo. Yesterday, polling funded by Lord Ashcroft, the Tories' former deputy chairman, showed 51 per cent want the Liberal Democrats to have more influence, while only 23 per cent say they have too much sway – a ray of hope for Mr Clegg, who believes his party must "drive right down the middle of the road".

How long will he remain in the same vehicle as Mr Cameron? They want the Coalition to last the course, but the crucial impasse over spending reminds them that they head two very different parties. The fork in the road may arrive quicker than they think.

React Now

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

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam