Reports today that the Conservatives are wargaming end-of-Coalition scenarios in the event of the Lib Dems leaving early won’t come as a surprise, given the bickering over the past few weeks on snooping, childcare and Europe. But in the interim, ministers are also trying to work out how both parties can practise a sensible differentiation policy without appearing to squabble endlessly for another two years.
Nick Clegg spoke about the need for sausage machine government before Christmas, with a call for honesty about the difference between the two parties on policies as they were being developed. He has annoyed Theresa May something rotten by sticking to that principle on the Snooper’s Charter (and the Times reveals some angry letters that flew between the two on this). But that was a good example of gory government. A bad example is the row over childcare, where both sides are arguing as much about who said what as they are about the policy itself.
Some Conservatives were initially reluctant when Clegg started talking about honesty and openness in government. But they recognise the need for differentiation. Many wish Number 10 had seen the Queen’s Speech as a key opportunity to start that in earnest by publishing the draft EU referendum bill alongside the government’s legislative programme, to make a real point about what a majority Tory administration could be doing. But at least the Bill is now out, has an MP looking after it, and has the opportunity to provoke some debate with the Lib Dems and tensions in the Labour party.
The plan on the Conservative side is to be organised about the differentiation. Any ‘what we’d do without the Lib Dems’ moments will have big neon signs around them, rather than leaking out to journalists as behind-the-scenes rows. ‘We have got to do this in an organised way,’ says one Cabinet minister. The great risk is that voters simply see more arguments, rather than orchestrated pitches for their attention from the different parties. The leaders will need to sign off on each sausage machine moment, rather than being surprised by briefings to the newspapers.
One policy area that Conservatives want to see more differentiation on, and where Nick Clegg is more than happy to give as good as he gets, is human rights. I understand Chris Grayling is working on a plan for the Tory party to differentiate itself clearly and with concrete ideas on human rights. This will be unveiled in due course.
Differentiation doesn’t just rely on the careful planning of members of the Cabinet, though. The big lesson from this week’s mayhem on Europe is that a whole party needs to develop strong message discipline. The Tories are getting better at this, with Lynton Crosby pushing them harder, and a more proactive operation from the whips for events such as PMQs. But if Tory backbenchers are bickering, then it becomes a lot more difficult to organise a political row with the Lib Dems.
What is probably needed is a little bit more love. If the differences between the two parties get too personal, then the only thing that gets attention is the personal animosity, not the policy distinctions. It’s a delicate balance, and a real challenge for those at the top of the Coalition to get it right.