Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A coalition of the unwilling

For a while over the weekend it looked like the whole country was loved up following the royal wedding, even David Cameron, in full on ‘Dave’ mode obviously, was caught twittering that it was ‘like a fairytale’ to the BBC .

Thankfully the squabble, sorry debate, over voting reform has brought us all back to earth with a reassuring bump.

Over the weekend Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne raised serious concerns about the attacks on the Liberal Democrats made by the ‘No to AV’ campaign in their leaflets and broadcasts. Just for the record although it’s nominally at least a cross party organisation much of the campaign’s money comes from people who also donate to the Conservative Party.

Speaking the to Guardian Mr Huhne criticised David Cameron for not urging the No campaign to tone down its attacks on the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg , saying he ‘has had the power to stop these leaflets saying Nick Clegg has broken promises and told lies. He has done nothing about it.’

This, he asserts, is no way to treat coalition partners who have made painful compromises to help push through Tory policies. For his part the prime minister claims he has no control over the content of the materiel put out by the No campaign and that he and Nick Clegg would continue to work together in the national interest.

Speaking for the No campaign Lord Boateng, a former Labour cabinet minister, proof if you needed it that the No campaign is a Roman orgy of strange bedfellows, said that if the Liberal Democrats ‘find the Tories so distasteful, you have to ask why they’re in government with them’ before suggesting that if they don’t like how things are playing out they should ‘resign from the coalition.’

At the risk of getting into the sort of trouble Mr Cameron did at PMQ’s last week my first response to Lord Boateng’s comments is ‘calm down dear’; it is seldom difficult these days to spot the difference between a ray of sunshine and a Lib Dem with a grievance but this time they might just have a point.

Read the leaflets put out by ‘No to AV’ and there is something distinctly mean spirited about the way they single out Nick Clegg for attack, it is almost as offensive at the assertion they make that voters are too stupid to rank candidates in order of preference. Has the noble Lord really thought about the attitudes of the people to whom he’s lending his support, come to that have any of the senior Labour figures who have backed the campaign against AV, aren’t they members of a supposedly progressive party; the attitudes of the No campaign are anything but progressive.

The Yes campaign has been lazy and inept from day one, this has translated into a ten point gap between them and the supporters of FPTP, as we’re all learning to call the old way of voting, down from a high of eighteen points but still enough to see them crash and burn come Thursday.

What you might wonder happens then? David Cameron will have got the upper hand in a coalition where the Lib Dems need the Tories more than the Tories need them; at least that’s the theory. The thing about theories is that they often turn out to be nonsense.

Friday night might yet be the last decent nights sleep David Cameron gets between now and the next general election. If, as looks likely, the No campaign win he will spend the next four years shackled to a resentful coalition partner; they probably won’t bring down the government because that would be electoral suicide for Clegg and co; but he will be haunted every day by the possibility that they just might.

Kicking the electoral reform into the long grass for a generation or more, the intention from day one of the No campaign, might seem like a fairytale ending for David Cameron’s Tories. The old way of doing things with all its institutionalised unfairness will roll on as before; the thing about fairytales though is that they don’t always have happy endings.

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