After one of the most fractious months in the life of the coalition since 2010, today’s Times reports that David Cameron’s team are examining various scenarios for a pre-election divorce between the two parties. One option (“an amicable divorce”) would see the coalition break up next summer and the Lib Dems support the Conservatives on a “confidence and supply” basis for the reminder of the parliament. This would involve Clegg’s party backing the government in any vote of no confidence (“confidence”) and voting through the 2015 Budget (“supply”).
Under another scenario (“an acrimonious split”), Clegg would be ousted as Lib Dem leader and replaced by a more left-leaning figure, most obviously Vince Cable (who ambiguously remarked yesterday: “I don’t particularly want to be leader”), who would reposition his party as equidistant between the Tories and Labour.
There are a significant number of Tories who hope that the Lib Dems pursue the latter course. If it is to win the next election, Cameron’s party needs a Lib Dem leader who can win over Labour voters in Tory-Labour marginals. At present, after the defection of around a third of 2010 Lib Dem voters to Labour, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election (Corby was an early warning) – there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory.
This fact has led the Tories to wonder aloud whether a change of Lib Dem leader before 2015 is now in their interests. The hope is that a social democratic leader such as Cable or Tim Farron, both of whom have signalled their availability, could prompt the party’s former supporters to return home from Labour. Tim Montgomerie told me last year that “a left-wing replacement” of Clegg in 2014 was “vital to Tory hopes”.
Those with a stake in a Lib Dem recovery have been encouraged by polls showing that the party would perform better with Cable as leader. A ComRes survey last September showed that support for the Lib Dems would rise to 18 per cent under Cable, compared to 14 per cent under Clegg.
Examine all of this and it soon becomes clear just why Michael Gove was so keen to talk up the prospects of a Lib Dem putsch against Clegg last weekend.