First cracks in coalition as Tories query Europe and vote reform policies

Andrew Grice
Friday 14 May 2010 00:00

A day after the love-in between David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the new coalition government came down to earth yesterday as Conservative MPs expressed doubts that the partnership would last.

The unity between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats showed its first signs of cracking as Tory backbenchers began to question the Government's policies on electoral reform, Europe and a controversial plan to change the Commons rules to prevent a general election being triggered.

Although the first meeting of the Cabinet was good humoured, reality dawned with appeals for any differences between the two partners to be kept private. A committee, jointly chaired by Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, will be set up to resolve them.

Lord Heseltine, the Tory former Deputy Prime Minister, said the inevitable public spending cuts would cause "terrible strains" between the two coalition parties and within them. "We are living in a false dawn," he said. "The sun is shining. Let's enjoy it. It is not going to last very long... There is a rocky road ahead."

Tory MPs questioned the plan for the coalition to last for five years and doubted it would survive until the next general election.

Richard Drax, the new Tory MP for South Dorset, said he had grave concerns about how long the agreement would last. Although he could see why it had been made in the national interest, he added: "I have severe reservations about how long a coalition with the Lib Dems can last and about the consequences for our party in the long term. This is not what the public voted for – the Lib Dems lost seats. Why we're in this position, in my view, is because the public is fed up with all of us. They have now got a hung parliament, which I don't think most people wanted."

Mr Drax suggested Mr Cameron should have held back from a pact with Mr Clegg's party. "Then we'd have another general election – in a matter of weeks maybe – and I think if that had happened we'd have stormed home. [The electorate] would have seen first hand the consequences of a hung parliament and that would have helped people make a stronger choice."

Ian Liddell-Grainger, Tory MP for Bridgwater, said the coalition would do well to last two years. "I think if it lasts a couple of years, this Government has done well. The Lib Dems will find it more difficult to take criticism than we will. Their history of being in government is pretty sad," he said.

He added that he had "never trusted the Lib Dems", and was scathing about their support for electoral reform. He said: "Electoral reform means hung parliaments, and MPs that you neither know nor see."

Some Tory MPs privately threatened to vote against a Bill to call a referendum on the use of the alternative vote system for Commons elections.

There were also signs of a rebellion over the plan by the two party leaderships to require 55 per cent of MPs to support a dissolution of Parliament and trigger a general election, instead of a simple majority as at present. The change is designed to prevent either side walking out before five years, but several Tories are urging a rethink.

Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne, said: "It is for Parliament to decide when it has lost confidence in a government." He added: "That is skewing the playing field. This would be the loss of an enormous check."

Defending the move, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said: "Once you agree that there should be a fixed-term Parliament, it is only fixed-term if there is some provision to really give it credibility to make it hard to dissolve Parliament, other than exceptional circumstances, part way through its five-year term."

Europe, an issue which destabilised the Tory Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, also resurfaced. Several Tory MPs admitted they did not trust the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-European of the three parties, on the issue. They are alarmed that the coalition has watered down the Tory manifesto pledge to repatriate some powers from Brussels and will demand a referendum if any powers are ceded to the EU under the Treaty of Lisbon, which Britain has ratified. The flashpoints with the Lib Dems could be over justice and home affairs, financial regulation and calls by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, for greater EU powers to impose budgetary discipline on member states following the crisis in Greece.

Bill Cash, the prominent Eurosceptic Tory MP, said: "The centre of gravity on the Europe issue has shifted to the Tories. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The proposals will not come from Downing Street or the Foreign Office, but from the European Commission. The question is how you react to them –do you say yes or no when they can be approved under qualified majority voting [when Britain would not have a veto]. It is very simple. Implementing the Lisbon Treaty is a further transfer of power, and so the answer is no because we [the Tories] voted against it. Full stop."

On the other side of the fence, some Liberal Democrat MPs expressed concern that Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, appeared to accept that there would be a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Trouble ahead: The awkward squad

Graham Brady Front-runner to become chairman of the 1922 Committee. Offering to be keeper of party conscience and keep a watchful eye on coalition government.

David Davis Former shadow Home Secretary. Has welcomed coalition but could become powerful focus of backbench dissent.

Bill Cash Will be watching the new government to ensure it does not cede any new powers to Brussels.

Edward Leigh Former minister and keeper of the Thatcherite flame as head of the right-wing Cornerstone Group – dubbed the Tombstone Group.

Lord Tebbit Former Tory chairman under Margaret Thatcher now reinvented as a blogger and has already attacked coalition.

Tim Montgomerie Founder of influential ConservativeHome website; has finger on the pulse of Tory activists.

Trouble ahead: The issues

Electoral reform Some Tory MPs may vote against Bill for referendum on alternative vote.

Elected House of Lords Some Tory MPs and peers are alarmed it has become a priority.

Capital gains tax Some Tories fear plans to increase it on second homes will hit supporters.

Europe Tory Eurosceptics distrust Liberal Democrats' pro-EU instincts.

Grammar schools Grammar supporters may try to amend Bill for independent state schools.

Climate change Many Tory MPs sceptical; some worried about partners' green tendencies.

The 55 per cent rule Critics dislike raising threshold for a Commons vote to dissolve Parliament.

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