Leading article: Mr Clegg must raise his price for keeping the Tories in power

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the unlikely event that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats can draw any consolation from their multiple election defeat, it is that it took place as early as it did in their planned five-year term in government. They have time to look back over the lessons of the past 12 months and act on them in good time for the next general election.

How feasible it will be to recoup lost ground is another matter. One year after the Coalition Agreement was sealed, the sense of betrayal among Liberal Democrats, and now the torrent of recriminations, will take a great deal of rethinking to overcome. The single most effective move Mr Clegg could make, aside from resigning, would be to withdraw his party from the Coalition. That will not happen.

As of yesterday we know that Mr Clegg is determined to stay and fight, as party leader and as Deputy Prime Minister. We know, too, that David Cameron is concerned to keep the Coalition together. And it might be asked, cynically, how could he not be, given the benefits that have accrued to his party from the discomfiture of the Liberal Democrats. Whether or not it was Mr Cameron's inspired calculation to make his coalition partners the scapegoats for his own party's unpopular policies, the electoral benefits of coalition have so far flowed all one way.

The new message from Mr Clegg and senior Liberal Democrats is that things will not be so easy, nor will relations be so cordial, from now on. To which the obvious riposte should be: what took them so long? The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, made an early start to the new era with his post-electoral description of the Conservatives as "ruthless, calculating and very tribal". The Liberal Democrats have now to play harder to get – much harder. They have lost any starry-eyed notions they might have had about that "nice" Mr Cameron and they are said to be compiling a shopping list of demands. There may be talks about a Coalition Agreement mark two.

The first real evidence of the Liberal Democrats' new public positioning is set to be more vocal opposition to the NHS reform Bill, which is currently "paused" for a period of "listening". The consequences of this could be further delay and major amendments, even a comprehensive rewrite to accommodate pilot projects and a voluntary aspect to GP commissioning.

In fact, while appearing to offer the Liberal Democrats a tangible concession, this could suit Mr Cameron's purposes almost as well as Mr Clegg's. The Prime Minister's political antennae are quite sensitive enough to have detected the qualms about the NHS changes in the country at large, not to speak of the opposition from the powerful health service lobbies. Thus could Mr Cameron neatly throw a bone to the Liberal Democrats, at the very time they most need one, and assuage criticism in his own ranks – all the while blaming Nick Clegg.

One secret of the Coalition in its first year was Mr Cameron's interest in using Liberal Democrat misgivings as a shield against his own party's right wing. In the AV referendum, however, he reverted to type. And not everything the Liberal Democrats demand will suit Mr Cameron as well as some eye-catching amendments to the NHS Bill. If, as it appears, the Liberal Democrats' shopping list includes more redistributive taxes, a boost to jobs, and House of Lords reform (with direct elections by Proportional Representation to keep that flame alive), the stage could be set for a period of increased friction, with Liberal Democrat ministers on one side and Mr Cameron and his Chancellor on the other. Some very loud and very public disagreements with their senior coalition partners are exactly what the Liberal Democrats need. But they desperately need some victories, too, to claim as their own.