It is starting to feel like the build-up to the AV referendum again, if not worse. No
longer the casual bonhomie of the coalition’s early days, but a great show of mutual distrust and loathing between the Lib Dems and Tories. There was Nick Clegg’s interview on the Marr Show
earlier, of course, which James has already blogged about. There are rumours that Vince Cable
is set to quit. And there is also Paddy Ashdown’s caustic article in the Observer, which he has followed by attacking, Major style, the Tory ‘bastards’ on Sky this morning. For their part, many of those ‘bastards’ are
looking on at the Lib Dems’ pain with glee, eager to make it worse.
Some of this is probably choreographed. Both Ashdown and Clegg have made it clear that their outrage doesn’t stretch to wanting out of the coalition. A schism before the next election would, they
say, damage both the country and the economy — but they’ve got to be able to let off steam in the meantime, if only to keep their own MPs and party members on side.
But, meant or not, the harsh words suggest that this one of the tensest periods of this government. The Lib Dems are, basically, scared of annhilation. They have gained much from the coalition,
both in terms of policy and of experience, but it is now coming at some cost to their self-identity. Europe, voting reform, tuition fees — these are all core Lib Dem concerns, but they are
also the areas where they have, very publicly, lost out to the Tories. Whom, now, does a Europhile student looking for a ‘new politics’ vote for? That, in a way, is the question that
Clegg faces today.
In coming to a solution, the Lib Dem leader has a choice to make. Does he try to repair relations with his party’s traditional constituency, mainly by bashing and impeding the Tories when it comes
to Europe and all that? Or does he try to reach out to a whole new set of voters? On the evidence of this morning, he is more inclined towards the former. There will, I expect, be more viciousness
and more demands in the weeks to come. The question that David Cameron faces, in turn, is how much of that to put up with.