Leading article: Mavericks rock the boat

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The Independent Online

This newspaper was clear what it wanted at the general election. We thought that Gordon Brown had got the central economic judgements right. We thought that there was a progressive consensus between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, not just on the economy but on many social issues and on voting reform. So we advocated tactical voting for whichever party was best placed to keep the number of Conservative seats down.

As the votes were counted in May, it became clear that a government based on Labour and the Lib Dems would be hard to form and harder to sustain. And we accept that one of the consequences of a more proportional voting system would be that parties would have to work together more often. Yet we were alarmed by the alacrity with which the Lib Dem leadership seized on the Greek debt crisis as the occasion for executing a 180-degree turn on when and how deeply to start cutting public spending. There are many Lib Dem voters, and some newspapers that appeared to advocate a straight Lib Dem vote now regret their choice.

So, after 75 days of coalition government, and as the tensions within and between the constituent parties threaten to become a running summer story, how do matters stand? Overall, the Government is proving remarkably popular, while its economic decisions are likely to cause unnecessary pain and many of its other policies are disorganised and ill thought through. What keeps the charabanc on the road is the showmanship of the two front men. David Cameron certainly has the confidence, the ease of manner and the ruthless pragmatism to smooth over any misstep and to look the part. And Nick Clegg can do the fresh-faced new boy better than anyone – including Mr Cameron – since Tony Blair. Never mind that his televised debating lost its shine by polling day, or that he tied himself in knots standing in for Mr Cameron in the House of Commons last week: he did the question-and-answer format well in Abingdon yesterday, and it brings an extra dimension to the coalition's appeal.

Of course, the Liberal Conservative coalition is greatly preferable to a majority Tory government. It made some good early decisions – to cancel the third runway at Heathrow and to hold a referendum on changing the voting system – and the Tories had to drop some of their less attractive manifesto promises, such as a cut in inheritance tax. Since then, a hectic pace has been maintained, rather at the expense of coherence. Again, some of it has been welcome, such as the setting of a date for our withdrawal from a combat role in Afghanistan.

But some of it is simply confusing. Michael Gove's free schools plans have been presented as a chance for concerned parents to spend a lot of time in meetings, while his unwinding of the schools building programme was littered with errors. Andrew Lansley's plans for another big reorganisation of the health service came out of the blue. Last week's launch of the National Citizen Service for teenagers was sensibly a pilot scheme – a principle that could have been adopted for the NHS reforms. And behind all this lurks the fear that the cuts, when the axe finally falls, will hurt the poorest and the vulnerable most.

Mr Cameron has played a clever game with the Lib Dems, but, as we report on pages 16 and 17, Mr Clegg's end-of-term address to his troops could be, to adapt David Steel's words: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for a kicking." The reality is that the Lib Dems have got very little out of the coalition apart from jobs for their leaders and the chance to describe Iraq as an "illegal war" from the Government despatch box. Many Lib Dem members and MPs are justifiably uneasy. On the other side of the coalition, David Davis's unpleasant comments reported yesterday remind us that the Tory right is deeply sceptical about the deal with the Lib Dems and yearns to go it alone.

Life will get more difficult for Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg over the coming year. When it does, there should be no doubt about to which wing of the coalition – or of public opinion – they must pay more attention. The David Davis tendency has little to offer and nowhere to go. It is the Liberal Democrats who have got least out of the Government so far and who have most to lose if it all goes sour. Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg must refuse to budge from the centre.