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Last updated: April 26, 2011 1:03 pm
David Cameron and Nick Clegg have long agreed that it is essential to the coalition that they maintain good relations at the top. They set the tone for the government – sending out signals to all those working below.
For as long as the prime minister and deputy shared a relationship likened to a civil partnership, the message to Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the rest of the government was clear: “We expect you to get along.”
Now the message is blurred. Officially, the slanging match between Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron will be forgotten on May 6, the day after the divisive referendum on the alternative vote is out of the way. But further down the chain of command there are signs that the disrespect and personal criticism being levelled at the top is being replicated by a new, harsh discourse.
Tory insiders have been heard talking about the Lib Dems as “yapping dogs” – irritants trying to insert their half-formed views into areas such as health service reform or immigration policy.
Cabinet ministers privately blame the Lib Dems for derailing the NHS reforms and for leaving Andrew Lansley, health secretary, dangling by a political thread.
Others speak in private about how they try to keep Lib Dem ministers out of the loop as they formulate policy to try to deny the minority party the chance to leak details to the press or attempt to rewrite it.
Lord Howard, the Tories’ former leader, appealed on Monday for the two sides to bury their differences once the AV referendum and local elections were out of the way.
“The need for them to work together in the good of the country is going to be just as great on May 6,” he told the BBC. Sir Menzies Campbell, the Lib Dems’ former leader, echoed the need for unity.
To some extent, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had anticipated the discord. Both accepted the need for Tories and Lib Dems alike to work on their own identities ahead of a testing round of elections.
Although officially denied, there has been something stagy about some of the rows – not least the acrid exchanges between the Lib Dems and Tories after Mr Cameron made a speech about immigration.
But Mr Cameron’s personal involvement in the AV campaign was not expected. Some Lib Dems see it as a direct betrayal of a promise to Mr Clegg that the prime minister would play a low-key role.
Mr Clegg’s attack on the “lies, misinformation and deceit” of the No campaign reflected genuine anger on the Lib Dems’ part that Mr Cameron continues to claim AV would require £130m on electronic vote-counting machines.
Meanwhile, Tories are furious that the Lib Dems have decided to attack them – Mr Clegg spoke of a “nasty” and “rightwing clique” – knowing that the only way to win the AV referendum is to win over wavering Labour supporters.
The poison is seeping into the system. Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem energy secretary, has not been forgiven for comparing the tactics of the No campaign and its Tory supporters with that of Joseph Goebbels.
“Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne should stop whingeing,” said Mark Pritchard, secretary of the backbench Tory 1922 Committee, pointing out that his colleagues had given up ministerial office to allow them to sit around the cabinet table.
The damage caused to the coalition by this new coarsening of political relations will only be visible after May 6, just at a time when the government will need to display a high degree of unity and discipline.
The row over the future of the health service reforms is unresolved; some Tories are gathering around Mr Lansley, whose supporters want to deny the Lib Dems any credit for watering down his original proposals.
Meanwhile, the issue of tuition fees remains toxic, with some universities proposing higher charges than expected. The economic and political strains of the coalition’s cuts programme will build through the rest of 2011.
If the Lib Dems lose the AV vote and hundreds of council seats, as seems possible, they may not find much sympathy on the Tory benches. The coalition could be set for an unhappy first birthday.
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