The Coalition is merely cohabiting now – that much has been clear for a while. But one partner doesn’t seem to acknowledge quite how unreasonable its behaviour is. The Lib Dems have been cheesing off the Tories with what have appeared to be an increasing number of increasingly heated attacks: from David Laws wading into the Ofsted row to Ed Davey attacking ‘diabolical’ and ‘wilfully ignorant’ Tories, and from even ‘native’ Danny Alexander making dire (but specific) threats about his dead body and taxation to Nick Clegg describing George Osborne’s call for further cuts in welfare spending after 2015 as a ‘monumental’ mistake. But today at his monthly press conference, Clegg denied that his party was pursuing an aggressive policy of differentiation. He launched into quite a soliloquy about coalition, saying:
‘It’s just nonsense, complete nonsense. The Coalition is what it says on the tin. It is two parties, acting together, governing together in the national interest. When you govern together as two parties, you don’t suddenly suppress your sincerely held differences, so when George Osborne gave a speech, saying that the Conservative party, their plan, is that only one section of the population will bear a special burden of fiscal consolidation, the working-age poor, you’re not seriously suggesting I say oh, by the way, we will remain silent as Liberal Democrats. Or when some Conservatives deny that they even think climate change is real, are we supposed to remain silent?
‘What you do in a coalition and I actually find I think many people outside politics are actually more comfortable with this than many people who watch politics who feel that every difference is not a crisis. You can have a sincerely-held difference of opinion on a whole range of issues and still govern together, that’s what we’ve done for four years and I have literally lost count now over the last four years of the number of times people have said, oh this difference is the biggest crisis of all, the government will crack. it doesn’t.
‘Both David Cameron and I are leaders of different parties, we have different visions of the future, we have different values, because we represent different political traditions in British politics. it would be bizarre in the extreme if we suddenly started erasing the differences that exist between our parties. What we need to do, what I always seek to do, is express those differences in a measured, sensible and grown-up way and then get on with governing together primarily but not exclusively in order to rescue the country from the economic mess that we found it in which was bequeathed to us by Labour.’
Conservatives on the receiving end of recent attacks might fancy quibbling that last sentence. They have viewed what they see as a ramping up of hostilities in the past few weeks with a mixture of irritation and amusement, wondering whether this really does much for the grand case that the Lib Dems want to make to voters that coalition politics is a good thing (and in many ways, it is, when it is done in a measured, sensible and grown-up way as it allows for open debate about policy). They don’t mind the press releases saying ‘this recovery wouldn’t happen without the Lib Dems’, but they’re not particularly enthused about being painted as the evil guys for the next 15 months by Coalition partners with whom they privately enjoy a far more serene and business-like relationship.
Prime differentiation target Michael Gove rather elegantly summed that up earlier at the Conservative Environment Network launch when asked about suggestions he was blocking nutritious meals for school children:
‘One of the things that sometimes occurs in Coalition politics is that the smaller party understandably seeks to draw attention to itself by saying we’re in favour of apple pie, cream and custard, and it’s the meanies in the bigger party that are trying to take it away.’