The end of the coalition has already begun

Nick Clegg has sounded the starting gun for the next election campaign.

Forget all this talk of Cameron’s welfare speech yesterday beginning the longest election campaign in history. We’ll now get there sooner than you think

Last week, in just four words, Nick Clegg sounded the starting gun on the end of the coalition. He did it on Thursday. You may have missed it - most people have. But it happened, none the less.

And what were those 4 little words? They were the very unexciting…

"nor the prime minister"

…when telling reporters that neither he nor David Cameron were aware of the education secretary’s plans to bring back the CSE.

Picture the scene in Downing Street when Nick’s words filtered back. They had two options. Back the DPM and confirm that, yes indeed, these were rogue plans, that the Secretary of State for Education had been plotting behind everyone’s back, that he was out of control, challenging the authority of the prime minister, that it was all madness…

Or they could adopt Plan B. And confirm that they knew all about the scheme, and that it was just the poor DPM (and Sarah Teather) who were completely out of the loop. Which is what they did.

Forget all this talk of these ideas being vague notions that were being kicked out about as potential manifesto material in 2015. These were firm plans with definite implementation dates. There was plenty of talk about how Michael Gove didn’t require any new legislation to introduce these changes, that he already had the legal authority to do so.

Now there have been lots of rows in government (Jeremy Hunt being just the latest) but they have been open, frank exchanges of views. What’s more, they have generally been about legislation that first has to go under the full scrutiny of Parliament. This was different. This was secret plotting behind closed doors to make a fundamental change to the education system without consultation. Imagine just now what it’s like in the Department of Education. Meetings behind closed doors and knowing looks from those civil servants ‘in the loop' while everyone else wanders around wondering what they don’t know.

Of course, everyone will try and make out everything’s alright. But like in any relationship, it’s seldom the blazing rows round the kitchen table that signal the end - it’s when the trust goes and the secret trysts are arranged, that’s when things are really over. We’re already sending a chaperon with Cameron when he goes on his jaunt later this week. We can’t let him out of our sight.

I’ve always said that a combination of the current parliamentary arithmetic and last year’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act will cement the government in place until 2015. Now I’m not so sure.

Of course adopting Plan B was designed to prevent the PM looking weak, to confirm that he had firm control over his cabinet. But ironically, his action means Lib Dems must now presume that Tories are constantly plotting behind our backs and this will make the day to day running of government very difficult and will ultimately end the coalition. And within the Tory Party, it’s probably the Secretary of State for Education who will get the credit for that.

It’s almost like Michael Gove was planning it all along….

Nick Clegg and David Cameron on a visit to a factory in Basildon. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.