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This is the right’s high-water mark

Unless David Cameron can overturn the ideological divide between left and right, the Lib Dems

The Cameron-Clegg partnership is either heading leftwards or heading for breakdown. That's my Law of the Coalition. There is more and more proof of it with every passing day.

That is not to say there isn't much in the government's initial programme that Conservatives can and should applaud. There's deficit reduction. School choice. Democratic control of the police. Welfare reform. Decentralisation of power. A cap on immigration. Restoration of historic liberties. A bonfire of quangos and bureaucracy. But this is almost certainly the high-water mark for Conservatives. It is very unlikely to get any better for the right.

Two numbers say it all: 84 per cent of Conservative supporters told YouGov that they are happy with the coalition; only 40 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters said the same. All other polling is noise. The blue half of the marriage is happy. The other half enjoyed the honeymoon but, now that the hard work of managing the family finances is under way, it wonders if it preferred the single life.

If Nick Clegg is to appease his party's left, he will need regular and sizeable concessions from David Cameron. He needs to alter the fact that barely a fifth of voters think the Liberal Democrats are making a "significant" impact on the direction of the government. Until now, most of Clegg's impact has been to stop things wanted by the Conservative right, which, incidentally, are low on the wish-list of the Cameroons. He has, for example, stopped the introduction of the married couple's tax allowance. He has stopped the Eurosceptics from trying to repatriate the EU Social Chapter. He has stopped the reform of the Human Rights Act. All important interventions, but stopping things from happening is largely invisible to voters.

Politics of woo-woo

The Liberal Democrat MPs who stand to Clegg's left - and nearly all do - are already agitating. Vince Cable wants some sort of graduate tax. Menzies Campbell wants Trident downgraded. Simon Hughes wants council-house tenants to continue to enjoy security of tenure. Even Danny Alexander, Clegg's most loyal lieutenant and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has called for a more redistributive tax system.

All the pressures will be greater once a Labour leader is in place. Left-leaning Lib Dems will then have an alternative to being shacked up with the Tories. If the new Labour leadership is clever, it will be more woo-woo than shoo-shoo. It will be Aesop's sun, not Aesop's wind. It will present an attractive alternative home to Liberal Democrats, rather than pushing them further into the arms of the Tories by constantly breathing fire at them. Policies such as protecting universal benefits are going to appeal to many Lib Dem hearts.

Unless the Conservative right gets organised, it is, therefore, going to see the blue drain from its government. It understands this and there are early signs that it is getting its act together. The chairmen (and they most certainly don't think of themselves as chairs) of the three principal right-wing dining groups are now meeting regularly to co-ordinate tactics.

Under Graham Brady's leadership, the backbench 1922 Committee is controlled by the right and it has launched a far-reaching inquiry into the general election campaign. Importantly, however, most right-wing MPs have decided that they will not succeed if they define themselves against Cameron.

Although many still resent that his modernisation programme failed to produce a Tory majority, they are determined to be future-orientated. They need to show that an uncompromised Conservative manifesto is more electorally potent than any joint coalition ticket. Their mission is to develop a set of policies on crime, tax and public services that the Prime Minister will find hard to resist. Backbench policy groups have been set up to fashion this package of policy ideas, with John Redwood running the most important group, focusing on economic affairs.

Faced with these tensions, Cameron cannot give the Liberal Democrats on his left a more redistributive state without antagonising his right. His task is to find ways of escaping the right-left divide as he attempts to keep his own party and Clegg's party happy. Downing Street insiders insist that this is all very possible. Look, they say, at the unlikely alliance between Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith on welfare reform. Who would have predicted that?

Other Tory-Liberal alliances include the consensus between David Davis and Clegg on civil liberties, first forged when both were their parties' home affairs spokesmen. Edward Leigh, leader of the Cornerstone Group of right-wing Tory MPs, is as suspicious of American power as almost every Liberal Democrat.

And then there is radical decentralisation. The MEP Daniel Hannan and the MP Douglas Carswell, both of whom are caricatured by the media as Tory right-wingers, have been enthusiasts for the coalition because they see natural allies in the Liberal Democrats who support localism and the democratisation of bureaucratic institutions.

Ways of seeing

This is the ultimate prize for Cameron. He persuaded the Liberal Democrats to form a political alliance with him. He solidified this through the generous allocation of ministerial positions to Clegg's MPs. He calculates that the Liberal Democrat ministers, increasingly friendly with their Tory colleagues, will want to finish projects they have begun.

The Prime Minister's bigger challenge is to overturn the traditional ideological compass. The dominant way of looking at the coalition government is as I have done and most commentators do. Left v right. Bigger state v smaller state. If this remains the dominant way of seeing politics, the Liberal Democrats will end up in Labour's arms.

Cameron needs to show that the real divides in politics are now reform v management; centralism v localism; humility v grand designs in foreign policy; democracy v bureaucracy; and, of course, society being seen as different from the state. If the Conservative leader can get key opinion-formers thinking in these terms and, more importantly, if he can develop policies that substantiate this new politics, he can do more than keep his coalition together. He might just deliver a longer-lasting realignment of political allegiances.

Tim Montgomerie is the editor of the political website ConservativeHome.

Mehdi Hasan is away

Tim Montgomerie is the co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice, ConservativeHome, and a former adviser to Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial