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26 June 2012

The end of the coalition has already begun

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

By Richard Morris

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.

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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….