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The Lib Dems’ real coalition partner is Labour

Inside Westminster: The Liberal Democrats are trying to be ‘equidistant’ from the two big parties

Another day, another dispute between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. After Nick Clegg broke ranks with the Government’s own policies on academies and free schools, David Cameron vowed to cut the green taxes on energy bills, even though he knows the Liberal Democrats remain totally committed to them.

Rumours swept Westminster that the Prime Minister’s declaration was a tit-for-tat move. It is true that Tory ministers were angry and bemused by the advance billing for Mr Clegg’s speech on education today, in which he will argue that academies and free schools should employ only qualified teachers and teach the national curriculum.

But Mr Cameron was not mounting a revenge attack. As usual, cock-up trumps conspiracy. It was Sir John Major, a member of his own party, who persuaded Mr Cameron to rush out reviews of green taxes and energy competition during Prime Minister’s Questions, by calling on Tuesday for a windfall tax on the energy firms. 

Mr Clegg, who was told 30 minutes before the session, warned Mr Cameron he would merely play into the hands of Ed Miliband, who has set the political agenda for five weeks since promising a 20-month freeze for energy prices if Labour wins power in 2015.

Where does this leave the Coalition?  No doubt its imminent demise will be predicted (again) by those who want it to fall apart. But it won’t. Mr Clegg’s education speech marks the start of a new phase, not the beginning of the end.

Senior Tories accuse him of attacking the Coalition’s own policies. Their surprise is greater because they regard education as the area in which the Coalition parties have worked best together. Suddenly, it seemed that Mr Clegg was converging with Labour, just as Tristram Hunt, the new shadow Education Secretary, has softened his party’s hostility to free schools. Indeed, moving education out of the “Lib-Con” column gives the see-saw occupied by three parties a big tilt towards the “Lib-Lab” side.

Although it suits neither party to talk about it, the list of issues on which Labour and the Liberal Democrats agree is getting longer: a mansion tax; green energy and taxes; a boost to capital spending; more housebuilding; ending winter fuel payments for the richest pensioners; child care; immigration; the European Union; the European Convention on Human Rights; House of Lords reform.

Looking at the list, it is hard to imagine the Tories and Liberal Democrats forming another coalition after the next election and it looks much easier for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to hop into bed together. And yet appearances can be deceptive. The Liberal Democrats are trying to be “equidistant” from the two big parties, not cuddle up to Labour. Inevitably, their differences with the Tories are magnified by the media, while their attacks on Labour are largely ignored.

At their recent party conferences, two Coalition parties began the inevitable process of diverging ahead of the 2015 election. Thursday’s speech by Mr Clegg is a natural extension of that.

He sees no contradiction between defending the Coalition’s policy on education and saying how the Liberal Democrats would like to improve it by adding safeguards on standards to freedom for individual schools.

The Liberal Democrats are a little ahead of the Tories on the Coalition learning curve. After all, if the two parties agreed on everything, they would be one. This week’s disputes over education and green taxes remind us that they are very different. But the Liberal Democrats are not lurching to the left. They are staying in the centre.