There is some evidence of growing tensions within the coalition government exacerbated by opinion polls suggesting that the Lib Dems are haemorrhaging support and it is the Tories and in particular Cameron, who are benefiting. The Tories, according to polls, are more popular than they were going into the election. For all the Cameron gaffes, he seems to be perceived a better Prime Minister than he was leader of the opposition. The Government has certainly made mistakes but with the opposition preoccupied with a leadership campaign, yet to fire the imagination, they seem to be rolling with the light punches coming their way. Oddly enough Ed Balls, who is coming a not so close third in the leadership contest, is proving to be the most effective opposition politician, helped by some stumbling from his opposite, Gove.
Cameron and Clegg’s challenge is to manage discontent within both coalition parties and to develop means to allow backbenchers to blow off steam, without damaging the Government. There is some danger though that constant noises off will have a cumulative damaging effect on the Government.
We hear for instance that a motion is being proposed for the Lib Dem conference condemning free schools as socially divisive. This is a flagship policy of the coalition. Party conferences are just the sort of opportunity party members need to let off steam and it only becomes a problem if senior figures back these sentiments. Simon Hughes the left leaning Chair of the party is the man to watch as he personifies, and acts as a bellwether, for the views of the leftwing of the party, the wing that was least comfortable with the coalition in the first place. The Lib Dems are keen to push through a referendum on AV. This is a big issue for Lib Dem supporters. Not only do they want the referendum but they want to win it. Tories, by and large, are against AV, and uncomfortable with the idea of a referendum. If the Lib Dems don’t win it then it throws up all sorts of issues. Public support for changes in the electoral system is less obvious now than it was during the election and, even during the election, it was not a big issue on the doorstep. So there is a real possibility that the referendum will not result in clear cut support for change. So, what happens then? Or, to put it another way, what will the Lib Dems most want to achieve in government once AV is out of the way -tuition fees abolished maybe? The double whammy of the spending and the Browne HE funding reviews results in October will, to my mind, present the biggest challenge for the coalition, so far. There are particular concerns over the ability of the coalition to withstand the Labour unrest that will surely follow the spending review, as the reality of the cuts and job losses, particularly in the public sector, sink in. But it is worth noting that there are strong incentives for the Lib Dems not to rock the boat too much before the AV issue is finally settled in say eighteen months time. Although in the interim its worth watching Vincent Cable, he doesn’t much like keeping to the script unless, that is he is its author.