Some have argued that these disagreements are largely cosmetic; an electoral ploy to try to create a sense of difference between the parties in the run up to the elections. I’m not sure I buy this as Nick Clegg and the other members of the Liberal elite will get most of the blame from the grassroots if the referendum is defeated (which looks increasingly likely). Therefore I can see how their frustrations might be boiling over at the moment.
However I can’t see the coalition breaking up at this point as neither party wants an election right at the moment. The Liberals are doing so badly in the polls they’d face electoral oblivion, while the Conservatives would probably lose to Labour. Therefore it’s in both their interests to keep the coalition going for as long as necessary. Also the Liberal Democrats are far too useful for the Conservatives at the moment as a ‘flak’ jacket. With regards to all the unpopular decisions the coalition has made recently, the Liberal Democrats have found themselves getting most of the negative press attention and the blame. A good example would be the rise in tuition fees. Almost all of the students’ anger seems to be directed at the Liberal Democrat MPs who they feel have betrayed them, leaving the Conservatives relatively unscathed. Equally Nick Clegg has been having a much harder time of it in the press then David Cameron. In a similar fashion both Conservatives and Liberals are expected to do badly in tomorrow’s elections. However the majority of attention will be placed on how badly Clegg’s party does allowing the Conservative’s a free pass.
From Cameron’s point of view I think it will better suit his purposes to keep the coalition going until he feels that he can win an election on his own. At which point I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds a reason to break with Clegg and strike independently. After all, if this referendum campaign has taught us anything, it’s that politics isn’t always fair.
Dr Matthew Ashton
Nottingham Trent University
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