In my recent, much-discussed row with the Liberal Democrats’ Simon Hughes on BBC1’s Question Time, I made the mistake of betting on-air that his party’s coalition with the Conservatives would collapse within two years. In the ensuing days, as I watched the Cameron-Clegg affair bloom and prosper, and the blissful honeymoon continue, I worried that Hughes might be proved right and this coalition government might survive for the full five years.
But in recent days, my doubts have returned. The Tories have repeatedly reminded their Lib Dem allies that they are in charge, and that the tail does not wag this particular dog. Take yesterday’s Queen’s Speech.
Here’s how today’s Times begins its coverage of the speech:
David Cameron tilted the coalition away from the Liberal Democrats with a Queen’s Speech that defined tax, immigration and police reform on Conservative terms.
In the main article, Roland Watson, Francis Elliott and Sam Coates highlight
a commitment to lower taxation, the first time since the coalition was formed that such a pledge has been made. Nick Clegg told the Times last week that the government’s priority was to rebalance the tax burden, not to reduce it. Last week’s coalition programme promised “more competitive, simpler, greener and fairer” tax, but no mention of lower taxation.
And here is the standfirst on the Guardian cover story:
Tory hostility to [electoral] reform could disrupt coalition
In the main article, Patrick Wintour says:
The Conservatives said . . . that the bill on AV would also contain measures to reduce the number of constituencies by as much as 10 per cent and to equalise their size — a complex, controversial and time-consuming measure that will benefit the Tories.
The Lib Dems say the referendum can be held before the boundary review is complete as long as the legislation has been passed setting the constituency boundary review in train. But some senior Conservative sources were hinting the boundary review would have to be under way before the AV referendum could be staged, so delaying its date.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail’s Tim Shipman writes:
Liberal Democrats and Tories are on collision course over plans to tear up the first-past-the-post election system.
The government published plans yesterday for a bill to hold a referendum on bringing in the Alternative Vote system.
But there was immediate disagreement between the coalition partners over when the public will have their say.
. . . Senior Lib Dems fear that if there is a delay, any nationwide vote on electoral reform would simply be seen as a referendum on the government itself, with voters punishing them at the ballot box.
But Tories declared next May “much too soon” for a referendum on electoral reform, voicing the view that it will not be held before autumn 2011 and “could be later than that”.
The Tories are playing a dangerous game. Electoral reform has long been the Holy Grail for Liberal Democrats. Indeed, it was Cameron’s unexpected concession of a referendum on AV, on the evening of Monday 10 May, that helped him — finally! — seal the deal with Clegg.
It would have been impossible for the Lib Dems to join a coalition with the Tories without the referendum promise. And if, in the coming months, they believe that their Conservative partners are intent on dragging their feet and delaying a vote on electoral reform, the Lib Dems may start looking for the exit. Otherwise, they risk being steamrollered by the Tories — both in office and at the next, first-past-the-post general election.
On a related note, and as today’s Independent reminds us, I was amused to see Simon Hughes, of all people, not quite on board the Cleggeron project in the Commons yesterday:
Simon Hughes, a Liberal Democrat backbencher on the left of the party, asked the Prime Minister a less-than-friendly question about housebuilding, but the significance was that Mr Hughes referred to “his” government — Mr Cameron’s, that is. The PM replied that he hoped Mr Hughes would come to regard it as “our” government.