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18 January 2012

Are the Tories losing patience with Clegg?

Downing Street used to deal with Lib Dem "differentiation" with casual condescension. Now the tone i

By Rafael Behr

There was an intriguing flicker of dissent on the government benches during Prime Minister’s Questions today when Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat MP for West Cornwall, asked David Cameron if he would consider abandoning the bill containing controversial health reforms. (He won’t.)

As rebellious interventions go it was fairly tame, since quite a lot of Tory MPs privately wish the bungled and unloved health reforms would go away. Still, it was a blunt display of Lib Dem assertiveness, which is, apparently the party’s plan for 2012. As I wrote earlier this year, Lib Dem strategists have decided to treat Cameron’s European veto — a humiliation for the avowedly Europhile Nick Clegg — as a licence to “dial up differentiation.” In other words, with the Tories surging ahead in areas close to their hearts, it was time for Lib Dems to start making their voices heard a bit louder.

This new, slightly more churlish attitude to coalition is also the best context in which to see the emerging row over “Boris Island”. the London mayor’s vision of a floating airport in the Thames estuary. Cameron has said he is interested; Clegg was apparently all signed up. Now, suddenly, the Lib Dems have got cold feet. The Tory explanation — delivered with some irritation — is that the junior coalition partner doesn’t want to go along with something that would boost Conservative chances in mayoral and London Assembly elections in May.

It is noteworthy that the Tories are responding to Lib Dem meddling with some fairly aggressive briefing. This is relatively new. In the past, Downing Street has been happy to have Tory backbenchers let off steam, complaining about the “yellow bastards” with whom they are trapped in partnership. But the standard response from Conservatives in government to Clegg and his team seeking credit for policy or boasting about how they killed Tory ideas always used to be carefully calibrated condescension. The line was that it was better to rise above such petty games. Towards the end of last year, this was upgraded to a more pointed “we don’t think it really helps them much” — the implication being that the Lib Dems embarrass themselves by point-scoring in coalition all the time.

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Now it seems Number 10 is taking a more robust approach. The Telegraph‘s Ben Brogan has an illuminating insight in his column this morning, including some pretty terse remarks about Clegg, his party’s uncollegiate tendencies and, astonishingly, his continental ancestry. A source close to the prime minister is reported noting that the Lib Dem leader is “quite foreign you know” adding that “no-one has noticed but there isn’t much that is British about him.”

It has been noted before that Clegg brings a continental approach to politics that doesn’t always gel that well with Westminster’s knockabout culture. But this attempt to portray his Europhilia as intrinsically suspect in some deeper sense represents a stepping up of internal coalition hostilities. The Lib Dems have long been amenable to a bit of casual Cameron-bashing on the side. The Tories mostly turned the other cheek. If both parties start hurling insults around things could quickly get out of hand.