David Laws’ attack on his former BFF Michael Gove is leading the news bulletins today, and rightly. Its wider significance lies in that the Liberal Democrats have decided it’s time to start picking fights not just with Tories in general but Michael Gove in particular. So Gove, having offered all that hospitality to David Laws, finds the guy he thought was his clansman wield the dagger on the instructions of his commander. This isn’t quite Westmister’s equivalent of the Glencoe Massacre, but the dynamics of the coalition have changed – in precisely the way that James Forsyth outlines in his political column this week.
The LibDems’ support halved soon after they went into coalition. No point chasing these lefties, thought Nick Clegg, but at least I have five years to rebuild my party. From the centre, perhaps, making a genuine liberal party – one which may poach some Tory supporters. But just over a year from the next election, the poll (below) suggests that the LibDems have failed to rebuild. So it’s time to go back, pleading, to those leftie voters. Which means beating up a few Tories.
A few weeks ago, the Liberal Democrats conducted some private polling suggesting that, if they wanted to defend their seats (the most they can hope for having lost half of their voters) they needed to start picking on Gove – because he’s their enemy no1. John Rentoul explained it all in a blog. He said:-
The LibDem research found that the most effective way to win back public sector workers – presumably mostly from Labour – is to attack Michael Gove by name. So far, Clegg has been too coalition-minded to go for direct confrontation with a fellow Cabinet minister. I wonder how long such restraint will last.
Well, it didn’t last too long. We can now expect wars to be declared over relatively trivial issues (like who should be the part-time chairman of Ofsted) on a regular basis. You may wonder why Gove be hated by LibDems more than, say, George Osborne. The answer is the nature (and success) of his reform. They have been about empowering parents at the expense of local government bureaucrats – many of whom are LibDems (or were, until the LibDems started getting massacred at local elections or defecting to Labour).
The irony is that Gove has a huge regard for Laws – I’ve heard him in private occasions saying how pleased he has been reform schools with such a talented and like-minded politician. I suspect Laws quite likes Gove too, but he’s under orders now not to. The great Lib Dem mutiny has begun.