Tim Montgomerie: PM ought to focus on his own base – not on Clegg

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The Independent Online

After David Cameron has given Samantha her morning kiss, the Prime Minister's thoughts turn to keeping Nick Clegg happy. Cameron knows he has a good chance of re-election if he holds his government together until good economic times return. But it will not survive if the Liberal Demo- crats pull the plug before George Osborne's medicine has worked.

The Lib Dems will perform incredibly badly in next month's elections. Clegg's local government base, which sustained his party during the wilderness decades when it had no power at Westminster, is likely to be devas-tated. The party may lose half of its vote in Scotland and Wales. It is also likely that voters will reject electoral reform. Getting AV is the one big thing that could have really sweetened the Coalition for Lib Dem activists. Clegg's party has long hungered for a different voting system, and many more Lib Dem MPs would be elected under AV, transforming the party into routine kingmakers.

In anticipation of these setbacks, Cameron is preparing "Operation Rescue Clegg", a package of concessions including accelerated reform of the Lords and diluted changes to the NHS bill. In an effort to force Cameron's hand, senior Lib Dems are having public tantrums. They want him to fear his government may be on the brink of dangerous divisions.

Cameron should call their bluff. If the Lib Dems were to force an early election they would be annihilated. They'd lose their university seats because of Clegg's "read my lips" U-turn on tuition fees. They'd be wiped out in much of Scotland and northern England where left-wing voters feel betrayed by the Coalition. Polls suggest many of their southern seats would return to the Conservatives. Clegg, Huhne and David Laws could all lose their seats. Cameron must not turn victory in the AV referendum into a strategic defeat. Ninety-two per cent of Conservative members say he has yielded enough to Clegg. Whether it is preventing repatriation of powers from Europe, reducing prison numbers, protecting the Human Rights Act, delaying renewal of Trident, keeping inheritance tax or stopping support for married couples, Lib Dems have done far better in Coalition negotiations than they have been given credit for. This has led to an increasingly unhappy Conservative Party. The idea that a "cuts" programme delights Cameron's grassroots is wrong. All Tories know we must live within our means but austerity does not energise them.

Cameron must stop worrying about Clegg and think more about his own base. Last week's immigration speech suggests he is starting to. The Lib Dems may have nowhere to go but the conservative majority doesn't have to vote Tory. It can drift to Ukip. Middle England's floating voters, not Nick Clegg, should be Cameron's first thought every morning.

Tim Montgomerie is editor of ConservativeHome