Conservative MPs rarely need much prompting to lament the “curse of Clegg” but the Deputy PM’s broadside this week against Michael Gove’s free schools “ideology” has enraged them more than most. For them, this is the worst example yet of Clegg signing up to a policy and then petulantly rejecting it when he proves unable to live with its consequences (cf. the NHS reforms, the boundary changes, childcare ratios).
Clegg’s public revolt against Gove’s reforms (most notably the use of unqualified teachers by free schools and their non-use of the national curriculum), in common with his appointment of Norman Baker as Home Office minister, is part of a conscious effort to differentiate his party from the Tories ahead of the general election. With the Lib Dems still rarely polling above 10%, Clegg is increasingly focused on winning back the left-leaning voters who defected to Labour almost immediately after the coalition was formed. And, if only for electoral reasons, the Conservatives should be cheering him on.
If they are to remain the largest party after 2015 (the possibility of a majority being too small to be worth considering), the Tories need the Lib Dems to woo Labour voters in Tory-Labour marginals. At present, after the defection of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters to Labour, they stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election (the Corby by-election 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 often led Tories to wonder aloud whether a change of Lib Dem leader before 2015 is in their interests. The hope was that a social liberal alternative such as Vince Cable or Tim Farron 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”. But the Eastleigh by-election victory, the return of economic growth and the prospect of another hung parliament have combined to secure his position. With no left-wing challenger available, the Tories should welcome the next best thing: a more left-wing Clegg.