Talk of coalition divorce is an expression of Tory hope, not fear

While the Lib Dems have much to lose from an early end to the coalition, the Tories can easily see the appeal of trying to govern alone.

Nick Clegg is eager to reassure anyone who is listening that he is committed to coalition for the full five-year term. He made the point in a speech and a press conference today:

Anyone who is wargaming about what may or may not happen in my party is wasting their time. I am going to be leader of this party up to, through and beyond the next general election. The Liberal Democrats despite all the predictions to the contrary have proved to be the calmest, most resilient and most united party in British politics today.

Clegg can hardly say anything different on this most delicate of topics. The tiniest hint that the two coalition parties might go separate ways triggers a frenzy of speculation – as indeed happened when David Cameron alluded in vague terms to such a prospect in his recent interview with Total Politics magazine.

That was not the first hint that coalition dissolution is being contemplated in the upper echelons of the Tory party. (The Conservative back benches, where Clegg is despised, ponder little else.) Someone briefed the Times that contingency plans are being drawn up by senior Conservative aides to accommodate the prospect of the Lib Dems ditching Clegg, choosing a new leader and racing off to the opposition benches.

This is purest mischief aimed at destabilising Clegg. It is a whole lot easier to find Tories who will speculate sagely about the precariousness of the Lib Dem leader than it is to find Lib Dems who insist on despatching Clegg. And it is much easier to find Conservatives who speak with mock alarm about the likelihood of their coalition partners flaking out than it is to find Lib Dems on the verge of flaking.

The reality is that Clegg and his MPs have a lot more to lose from a premature end to their governing partnership. Since they cannot rely on protest voters any more, they have to present themselves as a technocratic party of sensible, centrist government. (This will be offered in contrast to a fiscally unreliable Labour Party and a Conservative Party distracted from national priorities by flights of fanatical fancy.) If the Lib Dems marched away from power they would reinforce every caricature of weak-willed unreliability that their enemies use to damn them – and on the eve of a general election. It would be madness and they know it.

The Tories, by contrast, can easily see the appeal of trying to govern alone. They can also see the advantages of having the Lib Dems back in opposition competing with Labour for a soft left vote. The Tories could still propose legislation as a minority government and then challenge Clegg (or his successor) to do the "responsible" thing by siding with his old partners. They could offer up bills confected explicitly to draw political dividing lines – an EU referendum, even tougher welfare cuts, re-writing human rights law, scrapping employment protections alleged to strangle small enterprises in red tape. Anything that passes can be sold as leadership in adverse circumstances and whatever fails can be used to make the case for a majority Tory government after the election "to do the job properly."

There are Conservative modernisers who also envisage using such a scenario to put forward surprisingly liberal measures – something conspicuously compassionate – to dispel the impression that a Tory administrated un-tethered from the Lib Dems would be a menace to society. In other words, there is a growing feeling that a period of minority government could be used by Cameron to use the parliamentary timetable as one long party political broadcast in the run-up to an election. The obvious downsides to this strategy is the acrid stench of cynicism it would release and the possibility that it makes a Lib-Lab pact look inevitable after 2015.

Still, it is worth remembering that when Tories speculate about Lib Dems pulling out of the coalition it may not be an expression of concern – as they like to pretend – but of hope. 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit together as they visit the Wandsworth Day Nursery in London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.