Vince Cable and Danny Alexander's tug of war continues
After publicly disagreeing over the danger of a new housing bubble, the Lib Dem pair find themselves at odds over the end of the coalition.
The return of economic growth and Labour's fall in popularity has convinced the Lib Dems that there's little to be gained from an early exit from the coalition. The alternative of a confidence and supply deal with the Tories is viewed as the worst of all possible worlds. It would do nothing to placate those voters who despise them for propping up a Conservative government (indeed, this charge would have even more resonance), whilst antagonising those who believe they were right to enter coalition "in the national interest".
But during his day of dissent yesterday, Vince Cable used an evening fringe meeting to suggest that the coalition could break up before 2015. He said: "It's certainly possible. We are not at the stage of talking about that process. It is obviously a very sensitive one. It has got to be led by the leader. We have not yet had those conversations."
He later added on Newsnight that the position would be "collectively decided" closer to the election and that "all kinds of things are possible". But on Sky News this morning, Danny Alexander avoided such ambiguity in a calculated slap-down to Cable. He said:
This coalition will continue until the end of this Parliament as we promised for the very simple reason that we have a very big job to do - to clean up the economic mess that Labour left behind and entrench the recovery we are starting to see.
Vince was asked at a fringe meeting to speculate on a range of options. What I'm saying is that we have always made clear our firm intention is to make sure this coalition continues until the end.
We are not going to walk away from that job months or years before the end of the coalition government. We have big Lib Dem commitments to deliver.
lt's not the first time that Alexander and Cable, the party's two most senior economic spokesmen, have found themselves at odds during the Lib Dem conference.
After Cable warned that the government's Help To Buy scheme was in danger of creating a new housing bubble ("the danger lights have been flashing for some time") and suggested that its second phase should be limited to those regions where the market remains depressed, Alexander issued a stern rebuke, declaring that "We are a million miles away from a housing bubble in this country."
He added: "Right now the problem we face in the housing market is we are not building enough new homes and there are vast numbers of young people in work who could afford the monthly payments on their mortgage but simply can't afford the deposit they need to get a mortgage. The whole point of the second phase of the Help to Buy scheme is to help those people fulfil their aspirations and in doing so ensure there is more construction activity, that there are more new homes being built."
With these two clashes, the private tensions between Cable and Alexander, who many Lib Dems believe has been captured by George Osborne, are becoming increasingly public.