They’re languishing in the polls, their leader is considerably more
unpopular than either David Cameron or Ed Miliband, they face a difficult set of local elections in May — and yet the Lib Dems still seem relatively upbeat at the moment. Why so? Mostly, I
think, it’s because they feel that asserting themselves is starting to pay off. Not in votes, perhaps, but in perceptions. They cite the Budget as a defining moment in this respect: they got the
increase in the personal allowance that they wanted, the Tories got most of the blame for everything else.
That’s why I suspect some Lib Dems will be quietly delighted at the last couple of days of news. Yesterday, the web surveillance plan. Today, secret justice. Both are stories that enable the Lib Dems to resist the Tories in government — or
‘differentiate’ themselves, as they call it — so that is exactly what they are doing. There’s a letter in today’s Guardian from a gaggle of Lib Dem MPs stressing that ‘It continues to be essential that our civil liberties are safeguarded,
and that the state is not given the powers to snoop on its citizens at will.’ Nick Clegg himself has made it known that he opposes the current plans to limit open justice in the interests of our security services.
All this ought to concern David Cameron, and for two particular reasons. First, because it represents an area of intra-coalition divide that we haven’t really seen before: civil liberties. And also
because so much of this is happening in public. It does nothing for the government’s coherence when all the horsetrading and mitigation goes on outside of Cabinet, even if it is good viewing for us
spectators. Yet that is what happened with the Budget — and that is what’s happening now.