Nick Clegg is eager to reassure anyone who is listening that he is committed to coalition for the full five-year term. He made the point in a speech and a press conference today:
Anyone who is wargaming about what may or may not happen in my party is wasting their time. I am going to be leader of this party up to, through and beyond the next general election. The Liberal Democrats despite all the predictions to the contrary have proved to be the calmest, most resilient and most united party in British politics today.
Clegg can hardly say anything different on this most delicate of topics. The tiniest hint that the two coalition parties might go separate ways triggers a frenzy of speculation – as indeed happened when David Cameron alluded in vague terms to such a prospect in his recent interview with Total Politics magazine.
That was not the first hint that coalition dissolution is being contemplated in the upper echelons of the Tory party. (The Conservative back benches, where Clegg is despised, ponder little else.) Someone briefed the Times that contingency plans are being drawn up by senior Conservative aides to accommodate the prospect of the Lib Dems ditching Clegg, choosing a new leader and racing off to the opposition benches.
This is purest mischief aimed at destabilising Clegg. It is a whole lot easier to find Tories who will speculate sagely about the precariousness of the Lib Dem leader than it is to find Lib Dems who insist on despatching Clegg. And it is much easier to find Conservatives who speak with mock alarm about the likelihood of their coalition partners flaking out than it is to find Lib Dems on the verge of flaking.
The reality is that Clegg and his MPs have a lot more to lose from a premature end to their governing partnership. Since they cannot rely on protest voters any more, they have to present themselves as a technocratic party of sensible, centrist government. (This will be offered in contrast to a fiscally unreliable Labour Party and a Conservative Party distracted from national priorities by flights of fanatical fancy.) If the Lib Dems marched away from power they would reinforce every caricature of weak-willed unreliability that their enemies use to damn them – and on the eve of a general election. It would be madness and they know it.
The Tories, by contrast, can easily see the appeal of trying to govern alone. They can also see the advantages of having the Lib Dems back in opposition competing with Labour for a soft left vote. The Tories could still propose legislation as a minority government and then challenge Clegg (or his successor) to do the “responsible” thing by siding with his old partners. They could offer up bills confected explicitly to draw political dividing lines – an EU referendum, even tougher welfare cuts, re-writing human rights law, scrapping employment protections alleged to strangle small enterprises in red tape. Anything that passes can be sold as leadership in adverse circumstances and whatever fails can be used to make the case for a majority Tory government after the election “to do the job properly.”
There are Conservative modernisers who also envisage using such a scenario to put forward surprisingly liberal measures – something conspicuously compassionate – to dispel the impression that a Tory administrated un-tethered from the Lib Dems would be a menace to society. In other words, there is a growing feeling that a period of minority government could be used by Cameron to use the parliamentary timetable as one long party political broadcast in the run-up to an election. The obvious downsides to this strategy is the acrid stench of cynicism it would release and the possibility that it makes a Lib-Lab pact look inevitable after 2015.
Still, it is worth remembering that when Tories speculate about Lib Dems pulling out of the coalition it may not be an expression of concern – as they like to pretend – but of hope.