Andrew Grice: Nick Clegg has a plan to profit from defeat on AV

Inside Westminster

Related Topics

All the political parties will put their usual gloss on the results in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English council elections on 5 May. But there can only be one winner in the referendum on the same day on whether to replace the current first-past-the-post system for electing MPs with the alternative vote (AV).

Normally, disputes between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition partners are resolved in a friendly, business-like manner, often by David Cameron and Nick Clegg themselves. The deals are mostly done behind closed doors. The referendum will be different and very public. A civil servant who works with both men likens them to "two boxers getting in the ring, knowing only one can come out on top".

Over the next five weeks, it may look as if the special relationship between Dave and Nick has hit a rough patch. Yet appearances can be deceptive. Some allies argue the two men can agree to disagree because their fundamental relationship is so strong; the cement that has held the Coalition together so far will ensure it continues whatever the referendum result.

To reassure their own troops, the two leaders agreed to make very different speeches on multiculturalism. There'll be a second controlled explosion on Europe, I hear.

The Prime Minister and his deputy have agreed to avoid personal attacks on each other during the referendum campaign and that there will be no triumphalism. They know that the winner will have to compensate the loser, even though they haven't yet worked out what the package might include.

Until recent weeks, there was a rather lazy assumption in Tory circles that Mr Clegg was bound to be the loser. Then there was a bit of a wobble in Toryland as it realised it could not take victory for granted.

There is talk in the Commons tea rooms of Tory MPs declaring "civil war" if the public vote Yes to AV. True, this comes from Tory diehards who never liked the Coalition in the first place and complain that the Liberal Democrats exercise far more influence over government policies than their 57 MPs warrant.

Other Tories warn of "guerrilla warfare", a more realistic scenario, in which Tory MPs would be much more likely to rebel if Mr Cameron loses the referendum – especially those who fear they would lose their seats under AV. The Prime Minister knows there would be trouble ahead.

Although the Liberal Democrats have punched above their weight in spats over government policy, a No vote would provoke claims that Mr Clegg had blown a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the voting system and revive the "What did the Romans ever do for us?" question about the Coalition.

Until recently, Mr Clegg's fall-back plan was to demand the speeding up of plans to create a mainly elected House of Lords. While that might raise a cheer at a Lib Dem conference, it hardly sets pulses racing in the Dog and Duck. And it would take years.

So Mr Clegg has set his sights on a much bigger prize: a U-turn in the controversial NHS reforms to hand 80 per cent of the budget to GPs and scrap primary care trusts (PCTs). Mr Clegg is convinced that there must be big symbolic changes to the NHS and Social Care Bill. By one of those happy coincidences, a final decisions on whether the Government will make a technical tweak or something the media would call a U-turn are unlikely to be taken until after 5 May. So Mr Clegg's hand would be strengthened by a No vote. That would not be good news for Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, who does not want to fillet reforms he has been cooking up for eight years in opposition and government (even though the Tories didn't exactly shout about them from the rooftops during last year's election). He knows that Mr Cameron will demand some changes and is prepared to see a few technical amendments to the Bill during its passage through Parliament. It could face a rough ride in the House of Lords, so tweaking will probably be needed anyway. Mr Clegg's worry is that the public would not notice fine-tuning. He fears that such a big shake-up, at a time when the NHS will be under intense pressure to make efficiency savings, would result in the Government being blamed for all the ills caused by the cash squeeze. For Mr Cameron, such a scenario would be highly dangerous. Reassuring the public about the Tories' intentions on health was a big part of his project to decontaminate his party. But allowing Mr Clegg to get the credit for a U-turn on the NHS plans would carry big risks. The Liberal-Conservative Government was supposed to complete the detoxification process, not put it into reverse. "We can't let the Lib Dems be the Coalition's conscience," one Cameron ally said yesterday.

Some insiders believe the decision on the NHS reforms could be the biggest test yet for the Cameron-Clegg relationship. The stakes are high: get it wrong, senior Lib Dems believe, and health could be dominant in a 2015 election. No prizes for guessing who would love that – Labour.

React Now

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

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Foundation Primary Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are looking for Founda...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties  

Poppy Appeal 2014: This is why I won't be wearing a red poppy this year

Lindsey German

Devolution for the North would be great if only Manchester didn’t rile the region’s other major cities so much

Chris Blackhurst
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?