Steve Richards: The Lib Dems' troubles may also blight the Conservatives

Suddenly Labour are not alone in questioning the claims of Cameron and Osborne to be progressive modernisers. Their Coalition partners are doing so too
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Following their dismal showing in the local elections, a harsh, unswerving glare is focused on the Liberal Democrats and the degree to which they are doomed as a result of their partnership with the Conservatives. So far, the other side of the equation is unexplored. What will be the impact on David Cameron's party as its partners start to signal defiant distance earlier and more noisily than its leadership had once intended?

The signalling is well under way. In response to their trauma earlier this month, Nick Clegg and his senior colleagues are starting to speak an entirely different language. Clegg's speech last week in which he argued that the Coalition was formed out of necessity rather than conviction was an event that not only redefines the role of the Liberal Democrats in government, but also potentially casts the Conservatives in a different light too. For the Conservatives, the warm, vindicating glow of supportiveness from a supposedly progressive party is replaced by more of an irritable, wary shrug. Suddenly Labour are not precariously alone in questioning the claims of Cameron and George Osborne to be progressive modernisers. The Conservatives' partners in government are doing so too.

The changed dynamics are significant because of the electoral map that acquired more clearly defined shape at the local elections. The outcome was widely hailed as a triumph for the Conservatives, not least by commentators keen to see their predictions of an easy Tory victory at the last election realised when the next one is held. On one level the results were astonishingly good for the Conservatives, a governing party making gains after a year of erratic policy development and rushed announcements of spending cuts. The triumph becomes more ambiguous when the nature of the original Cameron/Osborne project is taken into account.

On becoming leader, Cameron projected himself as a One Nation Tory. He announced that his heroes were Disraeli and Macmillan. No parts of the UK were supposed to be immune from his Blair-like appeal. His project of centrist reinvention for the Conservatives was close to realisation a year ago, when the Coalition turned out to be a big tent to die for, the Liberal Democrats offering formal vindication of Conservative claims to be progressive and modern. Clegg's body language was an even more ebullient endorsement as he cheered loudly during Prime Minister's Questions whenever Cameron asserted that his policies were fair and progressive compared with the wretched backward-looking record of the last Labour government.

Curiously, as Cameron and Osborne receive glowing reviews for recent electoral progress, their original project requires urgent revision. The Conservatives are still nowhere to be seen in Scotland and make no significant headway in the North of England. The affluent South is where their fortunes are soaring. Cameron's One Nation appeal does not appear to extend across the nation. That is why the changing relationship within the Coalition is almost as unhelpful for the Conservatives as Clegg's original embrace was unambiguously in Cameron's interest. It makes the extension harder to achieve.

Clegg's new message is that the fairer, progressive policies in the Coalition are down to the involvement of the Lib Dems. He made this point explicitly in his Today programme interview during the final week of the referendum campaign and, in effect, made it the theme of his speech last week. This is quite a leap. Last autumn, he repeated to visitors to his office that famous quote from Tony Blair in relation to Iraq: "It's worse than you think. I believe in the Coalition's policies." This was a dream briefing for Cameron and Osborne, proving that they could lead a government of the radical right and yet be on the side of progressives.

I sense that Clegg was speaking the truth last autumn. He was a believer. But, as leader of a party fighting for its survival, he is in a different position now. "It's not as bad as you think. I don't believe in it all as a matter of conviction" seems to be a guiding principle for public proclamation.

Whether the Liberal Democrats can recover a distinct identity by the time of the next election is far from clear. What is certain is that they are going to try. As they do so, they will implicitly and, sometimes explicitly, portray their partner in the Coalition as being on the uncaring wing. Periodically, senior Liberal Democrats will claim publicly that they are the ones making policies fairer, greener and more progressive. Presumably, without them, and with the Conservatives ruling alone, they are suggesting that policies would be meaner, less green and reactionary. These are not supposed to be the identifying characteristics of Cameron's leadership as he casts his sights beyond southern England.

Perhaps the Liberal Democrats will collapse in a state if disarray and their protestations of being the progressive partner will be laughed off, ignored in the anger at perceived betrayals. But I doubt if they will be entirely unheard. The one bonus of power for them is that they are listened to, for good or bad. Chris Huhne's driving licence would be of no interest if they were in their traditional powerless position on the opposition benches. The relentless focus on Clegg in the immediate aftermath of the elections and referendum was almost flattering. Normally, after such elections, the leader of the Liberal Democrats gets a soundbite 20 minutes into the BBC News at 10pm and is not considered again until political columnists have to find a subject to write about during the summer holidays. Now Clegg's words are assessed and publicised around the clock. The idea that the Lib Dems are a civilising force on those reactionary Tories will at least be part of the new mood music.

As a result, the era in which realignment on the centre-right appeared possible will not be realised and a Tory big tent becomes less likely. The Conservatives won easily in the 1980s in a politically-divided kingdom and as a party unapologetically rooted on the right. They might do so again but the nature of Cameron's project, at least in terms of electoral appeal, will almost certainly change as the Lib Dems seek distance.

The recent focus on the Liberal Democrats is not especially illuminating. They were contaminated long ago. The new twist is that they might contaminate Cameron's brand too.